Years ago, in faster times, my friends and I frequented a Thai restaurant on Chicago's North Side, a place I'll never forget, though I can't seem to remember the name. But the decor and ambience stick in my mind. Seat backs loosely attached to the chrome chair frames were gouged, burned, and dressed with strips of silvery duct tape. Tables, finished in a creamy Formica patterned with flecks and sparkles, were chipped and smirched with cigarette burns -- hole-in-the-wall pointillism. The linoleum floor was dulled from years of scuffs, scrapes, and a stratum of grime that simple mopping could no longer lift.
The restaurant was tucked under the "El" train tracks. Every 15 minutes or so, a commuter train would roar by. The restaurant's lights would flicker as train rumbles sent ripples through our bowls of Tom Kha kung, the coconut milk/galanga root soup we had the kitchen fire-up as hot as we could stand it.
The food -- served on plastic plates and bowls with flatware so thin Uri Geller could bend it with a psychokinetic wink -- was phenomenal. The ingredients were profoundly fresh with flavors that were clean, sharply discrete, and dexterously combined. The menu carried not a trace of the dreary dining room.
Which is why we deemed this hole such a fine spot for hangover therapy. One of the guys in our group told us that Thai spices and seasonings, such as chili, lemongrass, and kaffir lime leaves, scoured the blood and helped the body eliminate poisons, such as Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. This sounded pretty good to us. So, disheveled and bleary-eyed, we ordered Thai food for relief when all we really needed was to shove our heads into a snowbank. We'd call out the numbers from the menu and the cook would repeat them and follow with "hot hot, or super hot?"
Though a bit more formal, Thai Chili in Las Colinas brought back memories of this Thai shack. A young man in oval wire-frame glasses and a pressed white jacket urged us to order by number. And printed on the menu is a legend, with rows of little chili peppers, indicating increasing levels of heat from one to five. So if you wanted tom yum chicken soup with moderate to high heat, you'd say "number sixteen with three peppers." This makes ordering seamless.
Which is what Thai Chili's food is. I'd almost given up hope finding Thai food in Dallas with the clarity and succinctness found in that hole-in-the-wall under the "El" tracks. But there it was, plugged in a trendy strip of "master-planned" urban fabrication replete with apartments, shops, and restaurants.
Basil rolls ($3.95) -- little bits of shrimp and pork threaded with basil, bean sprouts, lettuce, and rice noodles bound in rice paper -- were cool, crisp, and refreshing. Deep-fried corn patties ($5.50) exhibited the same clarity. Void of excess oil, coated whole kernels were crunchy, rich, and sweet.
Even pad Thai ($10.50), a dish that routinely falters in Dallas, stood up to scrutiny. Flush with sharply defined flavors and textures, seafood pad Thai was woven with firm, separate strands of rice noodle slathered in a tangy sauce with a pronounced but not overbearing peanut flavor. Each bit of seafood -- shrimp, mussel, and scallop -- was vigorously plump, firm, and delicately sweet.
Thai Chili is tiny, cleanly simple, and filled with purple accents. Varied and assorted photos of Chulalongkorn, the son of 19th-century King Mongkut of Siam, the monarch featured in The King and I, line one wall. And this swatch of royalty seeped into the food.
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Spicy veggie chicken ($8.50) was riddled with well-meshed flavors and distinct textures: crisp bell pepper, crunchy bamboo shoots, and tender baby corn knotted in red and green cabbage in a light sauce. The only drawback was the stingy supply of moist breast meat, a problem dittoed in the panang curry chicken ($8.95). But the clean curry sauce tanged with kaffir lime leaf was savory on its own.
Mussels and basil ($12.50) was simple elegance: a graceful pile of firm but delicate green mussels and bell pepper with a single sautéed basil leaf carefully tucked in the shell.
Like everything else yanked from the ocean and served here, sizzling seafood ($14.95) was filled with firm but delicately succulent and richly flavored sea life: shrimp, mussels, scallops, and calamari threaded with vegetables and gracefully enunciated glass noodles.
But unlike most Thai restaurants in Dallas, Thai Chili is an example of masterfully executed cuisine, albeit in a "master-planned" slot. Maybe it needs a rusty commuter or a freight train next door. Because last I heard, that place in Chicago was shuttered and sold. It now serves fried chicken.