Thai restaurants in Dallas generally fall into two categories: mediocre and great. There isn't space between the two designations to accommodate gradients. Maybe it's the water. Maybe it's the obsession with steaks and frozen margaritas. For some reason Dallas has, with few exceptions, a hell of a time giving birth to dazzling Thai.
Banana Leaf is an exception, though you wouldn't think so given its unimposing digs and the cheesiness of the décor. But then again, the clichéd description of fantastic ethnic restaurants is that they're holes in the wall hidden under railroad viaducts or furtive shacks next to pawn shops. Note the restaurant in the film The Godfather where Michael does his double mob hit: Louis Italian-American Restaurant in Brooklyn. One of the Corleone lieutenants says the place is great for a double-rub not so much because the storefront restaurant is unassuming, but because it serves good food. Indeed, before Michael pulls the trigger, one of his victims proclaims Louis' veal is "the best in the city."
Banana Leaf is equally unassuming. The main focal point is a big-screen television imbedded in the wall. On all the other walls are groupings of birds from the truck stop souvenir school of art.
The food? Not only does it taste good, it looks good, too: neatly arranged and tied down. Banana Leaf's sampler appetizer platter includes two Thai spring rolls, two chicken satay sticks, two fish cakes and four pan-fried dumplings. Nothing was greasy, and the chicken was plump and bleeding juice. Fish cakes were especially noteworthy, with a moist consistency edged in sweetness.
Pad Thai managed to swerve from the sins usually heaped upon it in most restaurants: pasty noodles or sauce that is sweet enough to make an appearance in a continental breakfast. Banana Leaf's Pad Thai noodles are supple, separate and well-sauced with bits of egg that are distinct instead of brutalized into gruel. The shrimp version was generously scattered with plump, sweet shellfish.
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Banana Leaf doesn't hold the fire either. One of the dishes tagged with a hot and spicy menu moniker is called Tiger Cry. No need to riddle over where those tears come from. The dish directly above it is called waterfall beef: Strips of juicy tender beef are covered in tiny specks that look like dandruff. Our server said these flecks are actually rice that's been cooked in a wok, pulverized in a blender with white pepper and commingled with red chilies. The dish is then spiffed in a red chili-lime dressing. Even through the heat the richness of the juicy beef was discernible, though a few pieces were overwhelmed with lime.
Yet taste sometimes takes a backseat to visuals. Pad flik king, a stir fry with a choice of meat, had brilliant green beans in a red chili sauce that speckled the dish with flecks of saturated crimson. The pork we ordered to go with the ensemble was tender and succulent and soaked in spice that prickled but wasn't overwhelming. The flavor was good, but the look was better.
Panang was also beautiful: a calm coconut milk pool with red curry stains in whorls around a nucleus of moist chicken. The milk and curry flavors were as well-balanced as the visual signature.
It might be a stretch to say that Banana Leaf is great. But it goes a long way in defining the stratum between mediocre and great, leaning closer toward the latter.