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