No Thai Like The Present: Part 2

Saigon Cuisine did the pan-Asian thing and served up some fine dishes, but we learned quickly not to go there for Thai food.
Saigon Cuisine did the pan-Asian thing and served up some fine dishes, but we learned quickly not to go there for Thai food.

Absolute Beginners

IN my previous No Thai Like The Present, I discussed the magic of the food from Thailand, and celebrated the fact that Little Rock finally has actual Thai restaurants serving exquisite Thai dishes, ones that take me back to the fare I enjoyed as a D.C.-area denizen. It’s a dramatic change from 2003 (the year I moved to Dogtown), though the road to today’s improved scene was full of bumps.

lillysFrom 2003 to around 2009, Little Rock had a smattering of restaurants hinting they served Thai food, with varying degrees of success. My favorite, and the one working the hardest to bring Thai flavors our way, was Lilly’s Dim Sum And Then Some. While not strictly Thai, Lilly’s winter menu offers a zesty, coconutty variation of tom kha kai soup and a well-balanced panang curry that a friend of mine declared “the best dish in Little Rock” (I had to agree with him, at the time). Lilly’s is still chugging along, its menu in the words of David Byrne “same as it ever was, same as it ever was”. (If it ain’t broke…) I loved Lilly’s at the time, but due to a combination of daddy-hood and a plethora of other restaurants that have arrived since, I haven’t been in years. Writing about Lilly’s makes me want to go back!

Lilly’s wasn’t the only Pan-Asian restaurant on the scene; Saigon Cuisine opened a couple of years after I moved to Little Rock, its awning claiming “authentic Vietnamese – Chinese – Thai food”. Their menu went on forever and ever, which usually tells me this isn’t exactly a laser-focused restaurant, but the entrees seemed enticing on (laminated) paper. Unfortunately the Thai curry I ate on my first visit had more in common with curries from China and Vietnam than Thailand, in my humble, so from then on I stuck with the Vietnamese items. The food was decent enough, but we stopped going after discovering pho at Van Lang. Saigon Cuisine packed up and headed to western Cantrell a few years ago (where according to this article the food was vastly improved), then they moved to Conway, and then eventually moved out of existence altogether.

Van Lang Cuisine near UALR deserves a mention during this period, for its hot lemongrass soup with shrimp which was for all intents and purposes a huge, zesty, sour bowl of tom yum goong which I enjoyed immensely. I don’t believe it survived the transition to its new Korean owners

Gone, But Mostly Forgotten

They probably serve better food than the restaurant did.
ABOVE: Despite selling printing supplies, it’s probably a happier place to eat now.

We had one small Thai restaurant on West Markham, where Cartridge World now happily sits. I don’t remember its name; my memories of dining there are clouded by sadness.

Despite this being a dedicated Thai restaurant, I only managed two or three visits. I never had sit-down dinner service, nor ordered off the menu, so my swift harsh judgment comes solely by the weekday buffet. I know, I know, I respond as you shake my shoulders violently and tell me “YOU CAN’T JUDGE A RESTAURANT BY ITS BUFFET” but I calmly reply with “Taj Mahal” <mic drop>.

Strike one: Most of the food on the buffet was Chinese. Sweet and sour chicken, egg rolls, egg drop soup, and only a couple of actual rather ho-hum Thai chicken curries doth not a Thai experience make. There might have been pad thai, or something else humdrum and stir-fried. If you’re going to claim you’re a Thai restaurant, you might start by serving Thai food.

Strike two: The dining room was dominated by a woman who I presumed was the owner; whoever she never let me eat in peace. “You eat too fast!” she once complained to me.  (She wasn’t wrong, but I was there on a tight one-hour lunch break which didn’t permit a drive to and from the Heights and leisurely meal.) On another visit, she bemoaned her empty tables and went on a rant about how people of Little Rock don’t appreciate different types of food. “Only one Thai restaurant! Only one Indian restaurant! People here don’t want to try anything different!” Well, sorry, ma’am. It’s not us, it’s you.buh-bye

Strike three: The place closed not long after my last visit. I never missed it, but it left that gaping Thai hole even wider. I knew Little Rock would love a decent Thai restaurant, but it seemed pointless to hope.

Then again, who would have thought there would be a new Star Wars movie coming out in 2015?

Next: The Road to Recovery


Heart & Soul (And Easy Pizza) In The Kitchen

Clockwise, from top left: Taco; Spanish; Prosciutto-Arugula; Olive/Onion Pizzas
"Hi, I'm Jacques, and you're about to submit to my charm."
“Hi, I’m Jacques, and you’re about to submit to my charm.”

One of the most striking passages in Jacques Pepin’s absorbing Heart & Soul in the Kitchen was a simple off-hand suggestion to “use flour tortillas for a quick lunch pizza”. He mentions this and then is off and running to his next kitchen reuse/repurpose hint without letting the reader stop to ponder the potential mind-blow.

“Don’t be stupid. Flour tortillas are Mexican, and pizza is Italian,” you retort. But believe it or not, flour tortillas work and the simplicity is brilliant. A package of a dozen flour tortillas is basically a dozen mini-pizzas waiting to spring into action, along with their sidekicks Tomato Sauce Girl, Cheese Boy, and Toppings Acquaintance. Then some time in a 450º oven “until it looks like you want to eat it” and Boboli’s your uncle! My ten year old son now declares this his favorite type of pizza, so I guess I’m doomed to make it until he decides he likes something better.

tacopizzaI want to take a moment to discuss my favorite mini pie. This is my tribute to the Happy Joe’s Taco Pizza from the famously fun pizzeria chain of the Quad Cities region: tomato sauce, cheddar/jack cheese, chorizo (HJ’s uses spiced ground beef), homemade salsa, Doritos, and arugula (subbed because I didn’t have any iceberg). Yes, Doritos are a pizza topping! This is a thing to be celebrated, not feared. Nobody outside the Quad Cities seems to appreciate the wonderful creature that is Taco Pizza. It was my favorite of the bunch… and I’m determined to make everyone in Little Rock try Taco Pizza before I die.

If you prefer bready, doughy pizza crust then flour tortillas are probably not your preferred base.  And I’m probably way too excited about how this worked out for me. But for this revelation, I salute you, Mr. Pepin! May your heart and soul live long in all our kitchens.

No Thai Like The Present: Part 1

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The Green Papaya Salad at kBird is a big ol’ flavor explosion.

IF you’ve lived in Little Rock for any period of time and never tried Thai cuisine, you might ask “Why are these columnists and bloggers always wondering when we’re going to get a decent Thai restaurant? What’s so great about food from Thailand, anyway?”

The short answer: because it’s not afraid to get into your mouth and kick your tongue right in the buds. When you’re ready to branch out from pad thai and discover a vibrant, saucy phat phrik khing or the brazenly in-your-facehole tom yum soup, chances are you’ll become a fan also.

kBird‘s colorful papaya salad in the photo above serves as a tantalizing sample: an assembly of crunchy strings of green papaya flesh, dressed with palm sugar, tangy lime juice and the pungent, salty fish sauce; a sweet crunch of roasted peanuts which add additional depth and texture; and finally, an ample dash of chili which provides a delightful lingering heat that opens up your senses for the bites to follow. The warm, slightly toasty sticky rice that accompanies it is perfect for capturing the dressing from the bottom of the bowl (can’t let it go to waste, now!). The range of flavors is exquisite.

"Because too much is never enough."
kBird’s Spice Tray: “Because too much is never enough.”

And because it’s possible that the food isn’t salty enough or nuclear-hot enough, the really good Thai places bring out the spice tray to enhance the already intense sensations. It’s tempting to think of the spice tray as condiments, but it’s more accurate to think of the fish sauce, crushed chili flakes, vinegar-soaked peppers, or other items as extensions of the basic ingredients.

ABOVE: Thai food on vacation
ABOVE: Thai food on vacation

So, in answer to the question: Why Thai? It’s bold, it’s fearless, it’s an adventure. If this were the mid-’90s, one might say it is the most exXxtreme of all the cuisines.

Oh, how I missed it!

When I moved to Little Rock in 2003, the city already had a pretty well-established food scene, but Thai was sorely under-represented. I had grown to adore the abundant Thai restaurants over my 17 years living in the Washington, D.C. area, and it took Little Rock almost a decade to bring it home with any sort of permanence. This made me Saddy McSadface. (Is that meme worn out yet? Shrug.)

Thai food at Oishi is sometimes miss, but mostly hit.
Thai food at Oishi is sometimes miss, but mostly hit.

But in 2016, here in the Heights, I’m within walking distance of two places where I can get my fix! And I’m in easy driving distance of a third place at the Shackleford Crossing that is doing Thai the way I remember. Other restaurants are incorporating spicy Thai dishes into their menus to get in on the game; basic ingredients that you normally wouldn’t find at Kroger, such as lemongrass and Thai basil, are finding their way onto store shelves. Little Rock may be late to the Thai party, but now we’re drunk on fish sauce, which is a disgusting way to describe such a beautiful movement.

As I sat in kBird on Thursday and snapped the photo of the green papaya salad on my smartphone, it struck me how interesting it might be to revisit the Thai restaurant scene from my own perspective, to remember how barren it was back in 2003, and work my way back up to the present day where I’m sitting in a fabulous Thai place which I arrived at on foot. It turned out to be too much for a single blog post, because it turns out I can’t stop yammering about Thai food.

So look to this space for upcoming entries, and please feel free to share your own.

Next time: Absolute beginners


I Think This Space Is Mostly Filler

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ABOVE: The site is newer, but the face is older and grayer.

I’ve migrated my site from my old host that I signed up for 10 years ago. How 10 years ago was it? Their banner, which they haven’t changed in all the time I was with them, declares they’re giving away “a free Xbox” for referrals. Not an Xbox One, or even an Xbox 360. The original Xbox. Their hosting tools are similarly antiquities, having caught up with that promotion precisely never.

I’ve been dabbling with WordPress and other publishing tools lately. I wanted something like that for; while I actually enjoy digging into HTML code and designing style sheets, I’m also happy to just sit down and type and hit ctrl+B to make something bold on my site, or ctrl+I to italicize, or drop in a photo and just type a caption.

And the good thing is, if I want to, I can still get into the HTML and the CSS and tinker around. Everybody wins!

Except, of course, for Microsoft Outlook, which is a loser. Loser McLosington. It’s a loser at life, and a loser of data. Things Outlook has lost for me in the past twenty four hours: e-mails, folders, exported messages, time, and patience. I am currently researching the fictional Dothraki language so that I can invent a curse that conveys how much I loathe Outlook.

Anyhoo, thanks for stopping by. I hope this space becomes at least a little interesting.