The down side of success

I have heard of restaurants complaining that a positive review put them out of business because they were unprepared for the ensuing success. And I've always had a tough-love attitude about that "problem." A visit to Thai Country after another critic had recently reviewed the place didn't change my mind, but it did make me reflect again on the complicated relationship between diner and restaurant.

We had called ahead for a table and were told there would be no problem, but when we arrived at the restaurant, on a rainy night, there were lots of problems. There wasn't really a line, but we had to wait for a table and then bus it ourselves because every table was taken--an unusual occurrence in this plain, strip-storefront restaurant where the service is haphazard at the best of times. And though I do think a restaurant should be prepared to serve as many diners as it has chairs, the anger and impatience of the diners whose meal took a long time indicated as much naivete on the part of the diners as the restaurateur.

It was a mess--but the whole family was in the act, trying to salvage the evening, and our earnest waiter couldn't have been more than 15 years old. Most of the cooking seemed to be for take-out orders, which on normal nights are the mainstay of Thai Country. I can't blame the owners for wanting to take care of regulars instead of tourists first. But the chaos probably ensured that lots of the first-timers would not be back. More than one table of would-be patrons left the restaurant, storming out into the rain without having tasted a bite and probably settling for pizza once again. Too bad.

What can I say? Successfully dining out is a cooperative effort between chef and patron; their expectations should coincide. A restaurateur should be able to handle capacity crowds or be honest and ask customers to return another evening; diners should not expect the same sophistication from a small, family-run restaurant that they do from slicker operations. In this case, everyone was a loser.

Thai Country's food is terrific, and though we didn't taste any till nearly 10 o'clock at night, it was well worth waiting for. We had the foresight to make the wait easier by bringing our own bottle of wine. (Better take a corkscrew, too.) Other diners should have known--I did--that the place would be overrun immediately after a review.

I advise those of you who walked out to go back.
Satay, an irresistible Thai standard, was especially tender and spicy, the peanut dip good even once the sticks of meat were gone. Tod man plah, little golden cakes of fish flakes in batter, were deep-fried and served with a hot cucumber relish, like corn cakes. Curries, panang and green, were a perfect example of the explosive flavor and fire of the best Thai food, with a rare heartiness that merits the word "country" in the restaurant's name, though I doubt that's why it's there. Thai food can lose its balance and tip too far into the merely aromatic, becoming a limp-wristed version of Indian food, without the richness. Its excitement comes from the layering of spare, stark flavors, balanced by their scent instead of being mellowed by fat or meat. The incredible pra rad prik, a whole fish, deep-fried and sauced with chili and garlic, was a perfect example--the flesh slit so each mouthful included a bite of crunchy fried skin, snowy meat, and lightly spiced glaze.

Thai seasoning reminds me of those balancing games where you stack block on block as high as you can go, without causing the whole tower to collapse. And Thai Country is always a winner--in the kitchen anyway.

--Mary Brown Malouf

Thai Country, 9625 Plano Road, 342-0121. Open Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sunday, 5 p.m.-10 p.m.

Thai Country:
Satay (6) $4.95
Red Curry $4.95
Panang $4.95
Thai Country Special $4.95


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