Thursday, June 17, 2004

The Future of American Food

Posted on Thu, Jun 17, 2004 at 4:00 AM

Recently, I heard these startling words: "The future of American food lies in the strip mall." These words did not escape from the mouth of a Midwestern tourist on a Disney vacation, nor a fast-food junkie or any other kind of junkie. They are the opinion of Tyler Cowen, a well-respected economist and dining critic. The strip mall? I have always been a little, well, snotty about strip malls. But there was Cowen, all dressed up in a suit and tie in front of 2,000 food professionals, uttering those 10 words. Could he be right? I examined my own eating habits and saw the light. Many of my meals, actually most of them, are from places in worn-out strip malls. When I want good food at a good value, I look to the strip mall: Little Saigon, Garibaldi's, Pio Pio, O'Boys, Memories of India.

I have a new place to add to my strip-mall list: Red Bamboo Thai Restaurant. Thai food is one of my favorite cuisines. There is nothing like food that can be comforting and exotic at the same time. I crave Thai on nights when I want coziness or I'm sniffly or just want to go out alone with a good book. Red Bamboo fulfilled all of my culinary needs. Not only was the food perfectly delicious, but the atmosphere was easy and casual. It's situated in one of those run-down plazas on Kirkman Road and International Drive that's full of restaurants. Be prepared to maneuver in and out of the parking lot, going through a maze of U-turns and signage.

Red Bamboo belongs to Nikki Pantade, a close relative of someone over at Thai House. She worked at Thai House for a while, until they encouraged her to open a place of her own. She claims her restaurant is completely different from Thai House, but I saw telltale signs of her previous experience there in the fastidious service and impeccable food. Red Bamboo looks different than most strip-mall Thai restaurants. For one thing, it is enormous. Instead of being cheaply dressed or plagued with leftover-decoration syndrome, it is draped with delightful pieces here and there in an otherwise austere space.

The food is relatively standard. It's not exceptional, but it is very, very good. Nikki suggested some dishes, such as "mango fish" (market price), that are "real Thai." We tried our standbys as a benchmark and found them all to meet our standards. We started with nam sod ($9.95), a salad of minced pork, ginger, shallots, lime juice and cashews. Not only was the dish delicious, but it came out as spicy as we'd ordered it. The tom kha ($3.95), although not the best I've tried, was still tasty enough that I finished every last spoonful of the fragrant coconut and lime-based soup. The papaya salad ($6.95), laden with a sweet and delicately acidic sauce, was excellent. For my entree, I got the phad Thai ($6.50 lunch/$10.95 dinner). It was a satisfying meal - unpretentious and unassuming, yet winning and tasty.

When ordering in a Thai restaurant, you're likely to be asked, "Do you like spicy?" My husband does like spicy, and I often catch him on the verge of tears at the end of a Thai meal. He had this to say about his red curry with beef ($10.95). "Their food is just spicy enough to get the juices flowing, but not so spicy that it ruins my taste buds." The cooks at Red Bamboo are masterful with spice - they don't turn the threshold for heat into a pissing contest.

Of particular note is Red Bamboo's wine list. At many Thai restaurants, wine drinkers are subjected to something that tastes like Kool-Aid mixed with rubbing alcohol. It was obvious that there was some careful thought put into the wine choices, selecting the ones that bring out the best in Thai food. For instance, Merlot is too strongly tannic for spicy food; instead, Red Bamboo offers Beaujolais. As for the white-wine selection, I would go back just to enjoy another glass of spicy Gewürztraminer or a refreshing Riesling with my meal.

Maybe restaurants like Red Bamboo are the future of American dining - enjoyable everyday food at everyday prices, a great wine list and a comfortable atmosphere. That's enough to keep me coming back, strip mall or not.

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