The cuisine of Thailand is forceful and diverse. It's deeply rooted in the same hot and sweet, sour and salty combination that forms the basis of most Asian cooking, but it's influenced heavily by India, which lent spices, cooking techniques and a splash of Buddhism. South America offered the chiles that Thai cooks love all too well, and they've made their way into stir-fries, and curries in a rainbow of colors. And then there is the endless array of condiments, so many that a plain bowl of rice can be turned into a different meal every day of the month.
The Thai cuisine that's often served in America is comparatively shallow and one-dimensional. Most restaurants offer a collection of dishes based on Thai classics, stripped of their fishy pungency and searing heat. Their menus offer a choice of shrimp, chicken or pork in a number of sauces or stir-fries, and they're all happily prepared spicy or not. If the ingredients are fresh and the execution is careful, bastardized Thai food is still satisfying. But if you get to know the complex vibrancy of authentic Thai cuisine, your old standby will dull like an eggplant cut yesterday.
Pakpao, in many ways, offers a chance to explore facets of Thai cuisine that are difficult to find in Dallas. Owners Tiffanee and Richard Ellman opened the Design District restaurant in June, after opening Oak in the same building in 2011 and Belly and Trumpet in Uptown last year. Their latest is a departure from the fine-dining model employed at their first two restaurants. The new space is relaxed and approachable.
They don't take reservations. Instead you'll have to put your name in with the hostess and soak up the dining room until your table is ready. A small bar squares off a space that, on busy evenings, is filled with young cocktailers dressed up for a night out, sipping on fruity drinks and yelling to be heard. White paper kites dangle over the dining room, but in the bar, three cross-legged Buddha statues hang on the wall, looking down on the ruckus below. They're no doubt ruminating on whether it's better to have a cold beer or one of Pakpao's custom cocktails before they start into the menu.
They needn't meditate long: beer. Pakpao will win no awards for the sweet line of drinks produced by the bar staff. Tamarind usually lends tartness, but in a Pimm's Cup here it drinks like candy, and an old-fashioned might as well be served in a sippy cup.
No matter. Beer goes better with Thai food anyway, and there are plenty of dishes to pair it with here. Chef Eddy Thretipthuangsin, hired straight from Thailand by the Ellmans, has amassed a sprawling menu that covers takeout clichés as well as more interesting dishes that can hold your attention.
Jeo pla pao amounts to little more than roasted mackerel in a blender, and while the dip looks as appetizing as loose modeling clay, it eats like umami on steroids. Grab one of the vegetables served with the dip and, well, dip. Wash the savory flavors down with a big swig of beer. If the fish is too funky, other versions of this Asian chips and salsa include roasted tomato and chile pastes.
Other appetizers are served on long, thin plates that evoke the riverboats used to sell produce in the floating markets of Thailand. Order two or three and then shop for interesting morsels with your spoon.
Make one of them the mou pa lorw, which conveniently translates to sumptuous cubes of pork coated in a sweet, soy glaze and topped with pickled mustard greens. It all sits on a chartreuse-colored medallion of pickled daikon. You won't be able to get the whole bite in your mouth, but don't let that stop you from trying, because there it is: the slight bite of pepper, with sour, salty and sweet flavors, balanced perfectly like good music.
Make another plate the chicken meatballs, which are soft and sing of lemon grass, or the lamb chops, which are weighed down with a sweet and heavy glaze but are otherwise perfect.
There's more heaviness in the cooking here, and while it works perfectly with the pork belly symphony, it smothers the pad kra prow, a mixture of lean pork and eggplant dressed up with holy basil, chiles and fish sauce. The version here is plenty hot, but the sauce is thick and clingy, and the pungency of the fish sauce is lost. Noodle dishes taste hog-tied by heavy condiments, too. While many diners will still find these plates appealing, they don't take flight like they could. They're tethered like those forlorn kites in the dining room.
Not that red curry with catfish, though. It eats like a rocket. If you're sensitive to heat, avoid this dish completely. Many Thai restaurants make mild versions of their dishes and then toss in chiles at the finish for the hot heads. The last-second addition adds piquancy, but the flavors don't unite the way they do when a dish is cooked with heat from the beginning. Thretipthuangsin makes his dishes with a single vision in mind. If you don't like heat, his spicy dishes will not be an option.
The red curry will warm your bones and quickly put a tack on your forehead. It's an integrated and intense heat that's laced with paper-thin ribbons of kaffir lime leaves that explode with vegetal and citrus flavors. Draped over a garden's worth of vegetables and big chunks of catfish, this dish eats generously but with a vengeance.
If flames aren't your thing, look for dishes that are inherently soft-spoken. Thretipthuangsin is a purist, but he's no sadist, and both a yellow curry served with a soft-shell crab and a Massaman curry served with beef deliver more quiet, aromatic flavors. Steamed prawns served in a clay pot are peaceful, too. If you're not the type of person who eats with a bowl of chile paste by your side, look for menu items without an asterisk and stick with them.
Should you get burned, there's always dessert to bring you back down. Skip the chocolate mousse, which takes you back to your last room-service dessert. Instead get the coconut rice paired with tiny mounds of panna cotta, tinged green with pandan, an herb used throughout southeast Asia for its sweetness.
It's these plates — the ones that stray the furthest away from what one might expect from a Thai restaurant in Dallas — that make the best reasons for paying Pakpao a visit. Order the pad Thai if you like, but you'll be glossing over a kitchen capable of more creativity and compelling cooking than you're willing to admit.