Dinner today was one of the most pleasurable meals I’ve had in a while. It’s been a long time since – repeatedly, with the same dish – I couldn’t help closing my eyes and focusing all my senses on the exquisite morsel in my mouth. Fine, New Haven, you win: the Thai food here can be good.
The problem is, I’m spoiled. Houston has several excellent Thai restaurants, which started me off on a high note, but nothing so far has matched the incomparable Madam Mam’s in Austin. Madam Mam’s food sings with fresh herbs and spices – galangal, magrood, palm sugar – and truly balances the five flavors of sweet, sour, spicy, salty, and savory/umami. And they know what spicy is: in order to get a level of spiciness approximating “two chili peppers” at Madam Mam’s, CJ and I had to look the server at New Haven’s Bentara in the eye and say “yes, we want it extra spicy.” At Madam Mam’s, the dishes go up to four chili peppers.
So, I got to New Haven, and everybody raved about the great Thai food. And . . . well, it’s perfectly good. It serves quite nicely as an upscale replacement for American Chinese: consistently satisfying, popular, and take-out-friendly. But I looked at the dishes – curries whose sauces all tasted of the same homogenous creaminess, distinguishable only by the liquid’s color and the chunks of meat or vegetable swimming in it – and had trouble connecting them to the brilliantly multifaceted dishes I missed from home. I even tried non-curry dishes – drunken noodles, pad thai, tom yum – and, once again, they were tasty meals, but nothing more.
Today, Thai Taste gave me something more. I ordered the yum nua, a cool salad of sliced grilled beef, red onion, tomato, and mushroom, with lettuce and rice on the side. (I asked the waitress to recommend a dish out of a few I was considering; when I said “I like real Thai food,” she pointed to the yum nua.) Everything came in a sauce that actually had character; flavors of crushed peanuts, ginger, fish sauce, lime, chili, and cilantro danced together in harmony, bringing out the best of the slightly-undercooked mushrooms and slightly-overcooked tomato. The beef, though – the beef tasted divine. Again, the experience wasn’t flawless; a few of the pieces had ligaments so chewy they made eating a chore. By and large, though, the pieces were tender and pink on the inside, crisp-charred on the outside, and permeated by a buttery, flavorful marinade that complimented the meat’s richness perfectly. Alternating bites of mild rice and lettuce, zesty sauce, and luscious beef, I enjoyed myself more than I have in ages.
So there you go, New Haven. You proved me wrong. I hope you’re happy with yourself.