“Try the green curry next time, and order it Thai hot.”
This from our server, who had stopped by to ask how we were enjoying our meal. We assured him that we were, but I noted that the yellow curry was a lot milder than the three-chiles designation (on a one-to-four scale) on the menu had led me to expect. The green curry was the staff favorite, he said.
Then, almost as an afterthought, he added: “And you should really try the drunken noodles. The noodles are made in house.”
Talk about burying the lede. Surprisingly, the menu doesn’t make note of this specialty – one that, more than any other, sets Thai 55 apart from the crowd. It’s only after a helpful server has given you the four-word key to deciphering the code that you know the words “Thai flat rice noodles” on the menu indicate a dish containing handmade noodles. You’ll find three of these dishes on the menu, sprinkled inconspicuously among the likes of pad Thai and fried rice under the “Noodles or Rice Entrees” heading.
All are offered with your choice of half a dozen proteins, from pork to tofu. I’d avoid the beef, which can be quite chewy. Chicken is fine, though, as are jumbo tail-on shrimp. The same protein variations are available for curries and stir-fry entrees.
Our waiter’s recommendation of drunken noodles (so called, the story goes, because the traditional recipe – which contains no alcohol – was first thrown together by someone who came home drunk and just threw together everything he could find in the pantry) was on the money. Thai 55’s rendition lives up to the legendary origin of the dish with a cornucopia of snap-tender green beans, red and green bell peppers, onions, egg and fresh basil leaves in a brown sauce tinged with a mere suggestion of chile.
And, of course, house-made noodles.
Rustically thick with a substantial but tender bite, Thailand’s wide-noodle answer to Chinese ho fun noodles are also featured in pad see ew (where they’re stir-fried with egg, broccoli, garlic and dark, palm sugar molasses-sweetened Thai soy sauce) and lad na (broccoli and a “gravy” subtly spiked with fish sauce and oyster sauce).
The waiter’s tip about ordering Thai hot was a good one, too, though I haven’t found curries to be a particular strength here. You can count on fresh ingredients prepared from scratch, whether you order the yellow (hefty chunks of carrot and potato), Massaman (avocado and cashew) or green (a bright medley of green beans, zucchini, napa cabbage and peppers). But the exotic fragrances you expect in a Thai curry have been restrained in all that I’ve sampled.
Understated flavors are a recurring theme throughout much of the menu, for that matter, leading me to wonder if the kitchen might be a little too conscious of catering to Western palates.
Thai 55’s rendition of the minced-chicken salad larb is tasty enough in an inoffensive sort of way, but it lacks the fish sauce funk of authentic versions. Same goes for nam tok, a salad pairing commendably tender petals of beef and slivers of red onion in a dressing that leans more to citrus than fish sauce or chiles. And for a “spicy” green papaya salad (aka som tam) – though the traditional Thai beef jerky that accompanies the dish (along with sticky rice) makes it worth the price of admission.
While the Westernized approach will likely disappoint anyone seeking authenticity in traditional dishes, those who find it appealing will find the Special Entrees section to be just what the doctor ordered. The dozen listings under that heading embrace East and West in dishes such as Thai BBQ chicken; soft shell crab with asparagus sauce; and char-grilled salmon in a thick, slightly sweet red curry known as shu she. Spicy eggplant with shrimp owes the first word in its name to a couple slices of fresh jalapeño, giving the presentation as much oomph as you’re likely to get here, short of ordering a dish Thai hot.
Don’t overlook the specials menu just inside the door, where you’ll find the likes of drunken udon noodles with fresh seafood, and jumbo shrimp with peppercorn sauce. If you’re lucky, the list will include basil duck: moist, crisp-crusted slices of breast meat nesting atop a miniature forest of steamed broccoli and a pond of basil sauce, garnished with fried whole basil leaves.
Open since June in a building that has been home to a string of restaurants over the years (most recently, La Tropicale Cafe), Thai 55 is a casual spot with a cheery, simply furnished dining room. A small TV plays silently at one end of the small bar, which also serves as a takeout counter that can get busy with the RTP crowd at lunchtime. In the dining room, walls the color of saffron are hung with a mix of Thai folk art and large color photographs of modern Thailand scenes – a mix that, given the menu, seems just right.
4716 NC Hwy. 55, Durham; 919-748-3051
Rating: ☆☆ 1/2
Atmosphere: cheery and casual
Noise level: low
Service: friendly, variably attentive; pacing can lag
Recommended: house-made Thai flat rice noodle dishes, basil duck
Open: Lunch and dinner daily
Reservations: accepted for parties of five or more
Other: beer and wine; 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.