Take a walk on Thai's mild side

CorrespondentApril 15, 2005 

the owners of longtime favorite Thai Palace have a knack for serving authentic Thai food and, at the same time, pleasing those who seek the cuisine's milder side. It's a tricky balancing act that works by making most diners happy most of the time.

Thai Palace's excellent renditions of pork and chicken sate, for instance, arrive with a small cucumber salad, peanut sauce and toast points. That's right, toast points. Ask owner Renat Seepolmuong, who oversees the dining room while wife Panida runs the kitchen, about this apparent lapse and he'll tell you -- correctly -- sate is often served with toast points in Thailand nowadays. Along with the Vietnamese sub and the Japanese spicy tuna roll, the combination offers further proof that in our modern, shrinking world, authenticity is not a fixed value but increasingly a variable.

Bangkok natives, the Seepolmuongs are justifiably proud that their dishes are truly Thai.

But for those in search of authentically spicy food, the kitchen's attempt to cater to Western tastes can be frustrating. Order any of the three dozen dishes designated as "spicy" on Thai Palace's extensive menu, and you'll be served a dish whose level of spiciness lands squarely in the middle of the average American palate.

Fair enough, given the target audience. But try specifying that you'd like the dish prepared "Thai hot." Even if you use the Thai phrase "pet ma," generally accepted code words signifying that you're familiar with the cuisine and you want the dish "very hot," it will yield a dish only marginally spicier than the default.

Apart from excessive caution with the use of chiles, the food at Thai Palace is by and large as authentic as any around. It's also skillfully executed, from the ground chicken salad called larb that gets your meal off to a bracing start to the house-made coconut ice cream spangled with exotically sweet bits of jackfruit that's sure to put a Buddha-like smile on your face at the conclusion.

In between, the menu offers many paths to contentment, if not nirvana. Yum nur, a salad of thinly sliced grilled beef on a vibrant lime- and fish sauce-dressed bed of lettuce, cucumber, onion and cilantro, could easily translate in English to yum yum. So could yum nur's earthier, toasted rice-sprinkled cousin, yum nur nam tok, and a seafood variation on the theme called yum talay.

I'd skip the flaccid crusted fish cakes and go for fresh basil rolls if they're on the specials board. And if they're offering sticky rice with mangoes, put in your order for this classic. It goes fast.

Curries are tropically fragrant, and they're authentically soupy. You'll find all the usual variations on the red and green curry themes, as well as less common ones, such as red curry with shrimp and pineapple. Panang curry, whose lemon grass- and kaffir lime-accented sauce is thickened with ground peanuts, is a standout.

Gai pad kaprow, the classic dish of chicken with fresh basil leaves and Thai chiles, is generous with the basil but -- at the risk of belaboring the point -- disappointingly skimpy with the chiles.

I have no complaints about fried whole flounder, topped with hot garlic sauce or a sweet and sour sauce accented with slivers of ginger and onion. Nor with po tak, a bounty of fresh seafood in a lemon grass-spiked broth, simmering away in a volcano pot.

Pad thai also gets more than respectable treatment, though you'll have to ask for the condiment server that's traditionally available for you to season the dish to your liking. Come to think of it, a sprinkle of chiles from one of those condiment dishes would be just the ticket to spice up a few other dishes, too.

Greg Cox can be reached at ggcox@bellsouth.net

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