A friend has been nagging me for years to try the Thai Kitchen in the Valley.
I’m sorry I waited so long to heed his advice because this little restaurant serves the flat-out best Thai food I’ve sampled in Spokane.
The Thai Kitchen has just a dozen tables and the decor - red Naugahyde booths, red and white linoleum floor - is more reminiscent of a diner than an ethnic eatery. But the food is a world away from hash-house cuisine.
The Thai Kitchen was opened in 1990 by Paul and Benjamas Hall, who hail from Bangkok, Thailand. Paul waits tables, enthusiastically greets regulars and helps new customers decipher the exotic dishes.
On at least one visit, Paul literally ran from the kitchen to the dining room delivering orders. On another occasion, when all tables were filled at lunch, the food was slow to come and Paul looked a bit harried. But I was willing to cut him some slack. He was taking care of 12 tables all by himself. (If you’re in a hurry, it’s a good idea to phone in your order.)
Benjamas reigns supreme in the kitchen. Paul calls her the boss and tells patrons she loves to cook. It certainly shows.
For starters, the chicken satay with peanut sauce ($5.25) was sublime. This dish is standard on most Thai menus, but this preparation was exceptional because of the mahogany-hued peanut sauce. The creamy mixture was slightly sweeter than I’ve tried, but not cloying. Red pepper flakes add a bit of heat. Another plus: The skewered chicken meat, which had been marinated in coconut milk and curry sauce, was still moist after grilling. And the side dish of tangy pickled cucumbers worked as a nice balance to the sweetness of the sauce.
The Thai spring rolls ($4.95) were crispy and light with a flavorful filling of ground pork, transparent noodles and flecks of carrots. They were almost as good as the Lotus Seed’s unbeatable spring rolls.
Other appetizers sound like a page out of a Chinese menu: fried won ton, barbecued pork and dumplings. But all are made with a Thai touch.
The menu is further divided into categories: soups, salads, fried rice, noodle dishes, curries, meats stirfried with vegetables, house specialities and vegetarian entrees. Like many ethnic restaurants, the descriptions of each dish are a blessing. However, on the Thai Kitchen menu, about half the dishes have Americanized names anyway.
When it comes to eating Thai, I tend to gravitate toward the familiar. Choosing pahd Thai, rice noodles stir-fried in fish sauce, is akin to ordering a No. 3 with egg roll at a Chinese restaurant.This time, I was determined to experience some new flavors. I tried the tofu and spinach
smothered in peanut sauce ($5.95). This dish goes by various names, including Pra Rram Long Song or Bathing Rama, and is often made with chicken or beef.
The tofu was deep-fried, giving it a nice chewy texture. And the spinach was fresh and flavorful. But the topper was, again, the velvety brown peanut sauce.
During one dinner, my companion and I also tried a Musamun chicken curry ($6.25) and one of the house specialities, a noodle salad with shrimp ($6.95).
That dish was remarkable. Fettucine-sized rice noodles were mixed with bean sprouts, green onions and the dish was dressed in a tangy-sweet vinaigrette. It made for a refreshing combination. It was the plump shrimp that made the dish a standout, though.
Too often, restaurants serve shrimp that are puny and tasteless. The shrimp at the Thai Kitchen are big enough to be called prawns and they had a fresh, sweet flavor. They were properly cooked, not rubbery.
The chicken curry was also first rate. The menu makes a point of telling diners the restaurant has bases covered when it comes to curries. They serve six different types.
Thai curries are based on a blend of hot chili peppers, garlic, shallots and shrimp paste. Other ingredients are added to the base to attain different flavors. For instance, the traditional Kang Kari or yellow curry is a bit on the sour side because of the addition of a ginger and a citrus fruit called lumboton.
We tried the Musamun, which is a distant cousin of earthy Indian curry. In Thailand, there are regional differences in cuisine. Cooks in the north are influenced by flavors from China, while in the south, cooks take some cues from nearby Malaysia and India.
The Musamun curry at the Thai Kitchen was thick and creamy with coconut milk, potatoes, onions and peanuts. I loved mashing the chunks of potatoes to sop up the fragrant, soupy sauce. The generous chunks of chicken were boneless and forktender. The peanuts contributed a nice crunchy texture.
I appreciated that the dish wasn’t overloaded with onions, which are used as fillers at some Thai restaurants.
Other curries at the Thai Kitchen include red and green (probably the two best-known varieties) and a hotand-sour curry called Kang-Som, which is used in soups.
At a recent lunch, a companion ordered the pineapple shrimp curry and found the sweet fruit nicely tempered the fiery sauce. Coconut milk gave it a wonderful, creamy quality.
I was also impressed with a stirfried vegetable dish that had a light sauce that didn’t mask the ingredients.
The highlight of the basil leaves with chili ($5.95 or $6.95, depending on the choice of meat) is the distinctive anise flavor derived from the pungent herb. Basil and your choice of chicken, beef, shrimp or squid is stir-fried with onions, peppers, carrots and young bamboo shoots. The dish is a perfect companion to all the saucy curries.
Another hit was a spicy shrimp fried rice. On the scale of one to five, with one being the mildest and ascending in heat to a mind-blowing five, I ordered it three stars. I felt like a wimp after breaking a sweat and guzzling water. Next time, two stars.
The spicy fried rice was filled with crunchy veggies such as broccoli, carrots and, of course, the fine fat shrimp.
Any similarity between a Chinese fried rice ended with its distinctive sauce. It’s made with a salty Thai fish sauce and a special kind of soy sauce. As it cooked into the rice, it had a faint molasses flavor.
After exploring all these new flavors, I just had to sample an old favorite and the pahd Thai didn’t disappoint. Again, the sauce on this dish was a little sweeter than I’ve tried, but I thought it worked. And it came with a side of peanut sauce. My only minor complaint was that there weren’t quite enough bean sprouts.
I plan to return to check out the dishes I spied on other tables - the chicken with cashews, the noodle soups and the chicken curry with green beans.
Finally, save room for an order of black sticky rice with ice cream. This heavenly dessert is like an exotic rice pudding. It’s a creamy treat.
The Thai Kitchen does not serve alcohol, but I do wish they offered a non-alcoholic brew such as Sharp’s to help douse the fire.
Overall, I was impressed with the freshness of the ingredients and the quality of the cooking at the Thai Kitchen. All dishes are cooked to order, which helps explain why food can be slow to come out of the kitchen when tables are full. Order an appetizer and settle in for a wait. The food will be worth it.
xxxx Thai Kitchen Address: 12722 E. Sprague, 926-8161 Meals: Thai Prices: $5.25-$8.95 Days, hours: lunch, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; dinner, 5-9 p.m., Mondays-Saturdays Alcohol: no Smoking: no Reservations: yes Credit cards: MC, V Personal checks: yes