Thursday, November 22, 2001

Regional gain

Posted on Thu, Nov 22, 2001 at 4:00 AM

Since we're having to broaden our knowledge about exotic countries these days, it's probably a good time to note that Thailand (the former Siam, a culture shaped by Chinese, Indian, Cambodian and Malaysian influences -- yet apart from them) is a huge place. Narrowing "Thai food" down to pad thai and green curry is like saying that "American food" is New England clam chowder and grits. There are enough regional variations in Thai cuisine to fuel 100 more restaurants, and the variations at Sawadee Thai are welcome.

Sawadee Thai opened in February without much fanfare. Nestled between a Domino's Pizza and a chrome-wheel store, it doesn't have the dazzle of the nearby Hooters, and you may miss it. But it seems to be a popular place for area residents. This was previously 1st Wok, and there's an incongruous remnant of a sushi bar hidden in the corner. It's a small, strip mallish place, nicely lit with deep gold walls and a lovely terra cotta tile floor.

The menu is large enough to make choices difficult. Tod mun pla ($3.99), small fishcakes similar to the stuffing inside dumplings, comes mingled with cool sliced cucumber in a sweet vinegar and spicy red- pepper dressing. Papaya salad (som tam, $4.99), a very typical Northeast Thailand appetizer, starts out light and crispy, the spaghetti strands of green papaya hiding the fact that it is one hot dish. With anything on the menu, unless you're a pepper fanatic, even the "mild" setting may be too high in spiciness.

Crispy fish with lemongrass ($12.95) is a simple white fish (I believe it was pollack that night, but it changes with the market), flour-coated and fried, served atop peppers and onions, with a pleasantly spicy coconut milk and peanut-curry sauce. Ask for the sauce on the side to let the fish stay crispy longer, and order the fish filleted instead of whole.

I'm getting rather fond of duck and, if you order the duck with basil ($14.95), you'll understand why. Thai rice is at its best when soaking up liquids, and it served its purpose well with this rich, lime and basil-flavored sauce and savory combination of dark duck meat and spinachlike basil leaves. They do have the standards -- pad thai ($8.95) and summer rolls -- and they are also good.

The young staff is casually attentive beyond expectations. I was asked about every permutation of my order -- how spicy, how much rice. I attempted to order an eggplant dish, but they were out of eggplant. They were also out of takeout menus, and were unable to take American Express when I was there. Hope-fully the "outs" won't get in the way of the good stuff.



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