I wouldn't dare claim food writers have it worse than podiatrists and divorce attorneys, who can count on strangers to show them their bunions and bore them with stories of rapscallion spouses, but the patter unfurls pretty predictably when civilians learn they've crossed conversational paths with someone who eats for a living.
"Wow, a food writer, huh? How do you stay in shape? Gosh, I'd weigh 300 pounds. All those desserts! What's your favorite restaurant? You must know all the best places. I wish I knew about a good neighborhood restaurant: There aren't enough of those in Dallas. We need more neighborhood restaurants, and more little ethnic places like they have in my hometown."
I hear you. And I can help you. Please allow me to introduce you to an eatery that satisfies not one, but both, of your completely legitimate grievances. If you're willing to make the trek to Richardson, Bambu is turning out some terrific Isaan-style Thai specialties. Don't worry if the word "Isaan"—which denotes the nation's northeastern region, and can be spelled a zillion different ways—doesn't resonate. The warmhearted owners and servers will explain everything to you (including, by your second visit, your own likes and dislikes.)
Thai's often considered to-go food, and I'm sure some of Bambu's dishes are equally transcendent when packed into a Styrofoam container, but it would be a shame to miss out on a meal in the restaurant's straightforward but stylish dining room, where the food's seasoned with the staff's exuberance.
When I ordered grilled yellowtail cheek, my dinner companion confessed she'd never eaten a fish from the neck up. Our server looked deeply saddened, as though she'd just copped to never having flown a kite or ridden a carousel. "It's the best part," he insisted, recalling a Thai legend in which a fair maiden enhances her beauty with a fish-cheek diet. "You will love it."
And the fish-cheek virgin did, partly because the server had rendered the dish irresistible, and mostly because the appetizer was a gorgeous meditation on fish flesh, lyric and clean. Faintly salty, the mild yellowtail's fatty chop needed just a squeeze of an accompanying lemon to underscore its phenomenal freshness.
Diners who consider themselves members of the fish-cheek clan usually forged their fondness for the cut on fishing trips or at sushi bars, where hamachi kama's a fairly standard menu item. Bambu's owners operated the recently shuttered Sushi Rock in Plano for more than a decade, so perhaps it's not surprising that the Thai restaurant's best dishes, marked by simplicity and refinement, reflect what Westerners consider a quintessentially Japanese paradigm. They're not designed for takeout.
Bambu's menu includes the soppy one-pot dishes and stir-fries that most Americans associate with Thai cookery: There's curry and pad Thai and four types of fried rice, all but one of which are sold with soup and a spring roll at lunchtime for $8 a plate. The soup's a velvety tom kha gai, swimming with tender scraps of chicken breast and straw mushrooms and strewn with aromatic kaffir lime leaves. The spring roll's nothing special: The roll I tried was mushy and crammed with so much cabbage it could have passed for a St. Patty's Day snack.
Far better to leave those undifferentiated entrées to greasy dives and to spend your time at Bambu sussing out sophistication. The restaurant's justly proud of its yam pla duk fu, a honeycomb-like pile of catfish floss, here set atop a salad of leafy greens, slivered carrots, red onions and peanuts. It takes at least a passing familiarity with Isaan cuisine to visually link the pinewood-hued screen of deep fry with a whiskered fish: The transformation apparently involves steaming and flaking the meat before frying it to a fu, or fluffy, finish. There's nothing slapdash about yum pla duk fu, which is a rotating special at Bambu: The menu here changes according to product availability and kitchen whims, as all menus should.
Bambu's yam pla duk fu is paired with a standout rice vinaigrette, made with red chiles and lime, that's refreshingly free of the over-sugaring that mars so many Bangkok-style sauces. Dipping catfish fluff is a bit of bar pastime in Thailand, and I'm not sure there's any better way to enjoy Bambu than assembling a collection of what amount to Thai tapas. As the owner noted approvingly when my date and I placed an order for five appetizers, "that's how they do it in Thailand."
Smart. And there's plenty of authentic Thai pub grub from which to choose: fish cakes, fried tofu, deep-fried soft-shell crab and meaty clams submerged in a basil-rich broth stocked with bell peppers and sliced jalapeños. While I loved the mash-up potential of a fried Texas quail starter, the little bird bundles were frightfully dry. Still, that was the only small plate that disappointed. I liked a frankly sour papaya salad—grassy and garnished with dried shrimp and peanuts—and the Isaan beef jerky, chewy slivers of smoky beef suitable for a saddlebag.
The quail and beef jerky come with a reticent Siracha-based sauce that's emblematic of the biggest problem plaguing Bambu: The food's just not very spicy. I know I should content myself with complex flavors and be grateful a chile-happy chef hasn't obscured them with heat, but spice is a critical balancing element of Isaan cuisine. On my first visit, my server asked me to specify a spice level for my papaya salad: Since I wasn't yet acquainted with the kitchen's proclivities, and assumed I could always find supplemental heat in a bottle or jar, we settled on a three-star rating. When the salad arrived, my companion and I agreed the server must have been referring to another dish, and began frantically canvassing our table for heat, planting our forks in anything that could conceivably be classified as tongue-tingling. Our array of dishes wasn't any spicier than a Midwestern smorgasbord.
On my second trip, I stressed I wanted my red curry five-star, Thai spicy. "Very spicy," I clarified. The kitchen issued a curry so gentle that I didn't once reach for my water glass. I can't even remember if there was a beverage on the table, an obliviousness that certainly wouldn't be compatible with a true five-star spice experience. To be fair, I'd think twice before rubbing the curry in my eye, but it wasn't exactly fiery.
Still, the absence of spice doesn't spoil a lovely dish like pad kee mao, a rice-noodle dish that's especially good with silky tofu. And it's irrelevant to a fabulous take on crying tiger beef, featuring slices of rib-eye seasoned and grilled with more finesse than many local steakhouses can muster. The marbled steak's served with sticky rice meant to be balled up and dragged through a satisfying garlicky sauce of scallions and soy.
Rice is also the centerpiece of a dessert that made me swoon: Bambu invests two days of cooking in its black rice pudding and coconut cream, a glutinous dish so beloved in Southeast Asia that it's sometimes served for breakfast. The magnificent pudding, salty and playful, is the Thai equivalent of a peanut butter cookie. It easily out-comforts the vast majority of foods to which the comfort label's affixed: Next to black rice pudding, mac-and-cheese is about as comforting as a drill sergeant.
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So, yes, if you're looking for a friendly, ethnic restaurant, Bambu's your spot. I think you'll really like it. Shall we have another drink?
1930 N. Coit Road, Suite 100, 972-480-8880, www.bambuasiancuisine.com. Open 11 a.m.-3 p.m., Monday-Friday, 5 p.m.-10 p.m., Monday-Thursday, 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Friday and noon-11 p.m., Sunday. $$
Hamachi cheekbone $10 Fried quail $7 Beef jerky $7 Clams $12 Tom kha gai $10 Papaya salad $8 Crying tiger beef $12 Red curry $10 Thai fried rice $8 Pad kee mao $9 Yum pla duk fu $13 Black rice pudding $5