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.
From 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
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.
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