If you’re a serious fan of Thai cuisine, you’re probably familiar with larb gai. A salad of minced chicken tossed in fish sauce, lime, chiles and toasted ground sticky rice, it’s traditionally served with lettuce – which in authentic renditions is torn into pieces large enough to be used to pick up bits of the chicken and pop them into your mouth. You might even know that larb is sometimes made with pork (that’s the meat commonly used in Thailand), or even mushrooms.
But I bet you’ve never had larb made with salmon. I hadn’t either, until I stumbled across a dish called spicy larb salmon at Thai Spoon, a deceptively modest-looking eatery in a Food Lion-anchored strip mall on the northern outskirts of Durham. Naturally, I did what I always do when I come across something I’ve never tasted before: I ordered it.
Turns out spicy larb salmon is a contemporary take on the theme, a presentation decidedly more upscale than the humble street food dish that inspired it. And it’s clearly not meant to be eaten with the fingers. The salmon is a grilled filet, resting on a bed of romaine and slivers of red onion, showered with scallions and served on a plate garnished with a skein of curly carrot strings. But all the traditional flavor notes are present in the dressing that’s drizzled over salmon and salad, and – more to the point – are surprisingly harmonious with the naturally assertive flavor of the fish.
You’ll find spicy larb salmon under the heading of “Thai Spoon’s Specials,” along with a dozen other creations that take poetic license with the classics to varying degrees. At one end of the spectrum, there’s the familiar crowd-pleaser, pineapple fried rice served in a hollowed-out pineapple half. At the other is BBQ Chicken, which the menu describes as “marinated bbq chicken grilled on top with lettuce served with veggie fried rice and fried hot dog.” Okay, so maybe I don’t always order every dish I haven’t tasted before.
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Between those two extremes, temptations include lychee duck curry, basil lamb, soft shell Panang curry with asparagus, and catfish ginger. Drop a line in the water for that last one and you’ll reel in a couple of deep-fried filets, moist in a crisp, light batter and glazed with a rich, coffee-dark sauce that’s riddled with caramelized ginger threads.
If these dishes strike you as geared toward Western palates, rest assured that they account for just a small part of the offering at Thai Spoon. The bulk of the menu consists of traditional dishes, presented in the usual format: separate categories for curries, noodle and rice dishes, and stir-fries, all of which can be made with your choice of seven proteins. Spicy dishes are marked with the familiar chile icon. You may want to raise the ante to two chiles, but don’t go all in with three chiles (“Thai hot”) unless you really mean it.
Regardless of spice level, coconut curries deliver the intoxicatingly fragrant goods. In Panang curry chicken, kaffir lime leaves play the leading role in a red curry that encircles a mound of julienne red and green bell peppers and tender tatters of breast meat. A vegetarian Massaman curry serves up a meatless cornucopia – including snap-tender green beans, carrots and zucchini artfully cut into coins with fluted edges, cashews and ripe wedges of avocado – in a sauce whose muted brown color belies a complex flavor tapestry woven with cinnamon, tamarind and probably a dozen other spices.
The menu gives a good accounting of the noodle, rice and stir-fry repertoire, too, from pad thai to basil fried rice to a sweet and sour that owes its “sweet” to fresh pineapple. Spicy basil beef is exemplary. Pad kee mow comes close to the mark, the dish marred only by broad noodles that have been slightly overcooked.
Kitchen miscues are infrequent, though, and generally minor. Chicken satay is juicy, but I wanted more of the turmeric-tinged flavor of the marinade. In another appetizer offering, the minced chicken filling in steamed dumplings was tasty but there was too little of it.
Crispy vegetarian spring rolls (por pia) are on point, though, as is yum woon sen, a salad of shrimp, calamari, minced chicken and cellophane noodles in a bright lime dressing. Every Thai salad I’ve had, in fact, from som tam (green papaya, served with the customary sticky rice and Thai beef jerky) to nam tok (thinly sliced beef or pork in a dressing similar to larb) leaves me with nothing to say but “compliments to the chef!”
Make that chefs, plural. Thai Spoon is owned by the husband-and-wife team of John & Phattharasaphonn Lynch, both natives of Thailand who worked for several years in Thai restaurants in this area before opening their own place.
“We both cook together, we work together,” says John Lynch, though he’s quick to give credit to his wife for the moist coconut cake. I’m guessing it’s no accident that the couple opened Thai Spoon on Valentine’s Day.
3808-G Guess Road, Durham; 919-908-7539
Rating: ☆☆☆ 1/2/
Atmosphere: strip mall Asian on a shoestring budget
Noise level: low
Service: attentive and accommodating
Recommended: yum woon sen, som tam, nam tok, spicy larb salmon, catfish ginger, curries
Open: Lunch and dinner daily
Other: beer and wine (modest selection); accommodates children; good vegetarian selection; parking in lot.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: ☆☆☆☆☆ Extraordinary ☆☆☆☆ Excellent. ☆☆☆ Above average. ☆☆Average. ☆ Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.