November 1, 2013 in Features

Want to spice things up? Try Thai

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Jesse Tinsley photoBuy this photo

Grandma Jai’s Excellent Thai in Airway Heights is staffed by, from left, Noi Diomede, Oy McKinney and Amanda Riddle.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

If you go

Thai Kitchen

Where: 621 S. Pines Road, Spokane Valley

Call: (509) 926-8161

Hours: 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday and Tuesday; 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday through Friday

Grandma Jai’s Excellent Thai

Where: 12526 W. Sunset Highway, Airway Heights

Call: (509) 244-3914

Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 3 to 8 p.m. Sunday

Thai required?

A year with thoughts of food on the front burner and a lifetime of enjoying (almost) anything put in front of us and no, Thai has never been required.

That came up recently as we cruised by one of the many Thai restaurants in Spokane, and we wondered, why not?

Neither of us have an objection to Thai food. In fact, one of us ranks it right up there with a great hamburger and fries.

So why isn’t Thai part of the required conversation when thinking about dining out? We pondered that question over a couple of excellent dishes at our neighborhood Thai restaurant, the Thai Kitchen on South Pines in the Valley.

Both of us were introduced to Thai food about 25 years ago.

For one, that was the last taste until that recent conversation turned into our monthly muse about food. For the other, it took a visit from a world traveling relative to discover the great flavors of peanut, curry and coconut milk.

A few years later, the Thai Kitchen moved into the neighborhood, and the owner, Paul “I will make you the best” Hall, introduced us to some amazing dishes.

And yet Thai doesn’t always come to mind, despite an abundance of opportunities throughout the area.

It could be because Thai isn’t easy.

David Thompson, an Australian chef who specializes in Thai food, said in an interview in The Guardian in London three years ago, “Thai food ain’t about simplicity. It’s about the juggling of disparate elements to create a harmonious finish. Like a complex musical chord it’s got to have a smooth surface but it doesn’t matter what’s happening underneath. Simplicity isn’t the dictum here, at all.”

We can’t get to every Thai restaurant – though we might try if we got a raise – and the truth is we couldn’t tell you what the best is. We’re as intimidated by what Thompson said as you might be.

How do you order if you don’t know what you’re doing?

And then there’s the heat. Yes, there is a spice meter, a 1- to 5-star heat ranking. But a friend who likes it hot almost met his taste buds’ Waterloo once with a 3. Obviously there isn’t an industry standard.

One last thing that’s important to us, as wine drinkers: We’ve never associated any drinks with Thai food, although that is a dumb reason to not go.

Well, forget your fears. We’ve always been guided through a menu by a patient waitress or waiter. As one of us noted, “They made it easy to be an idiot.” And honestly, Thai food is delicious, no matter what you order.

We’ve loved the aforementioned Thai Kitchen, Bangkok Thai both near Gonzaga as well as off Sprague and Argonne (there is also one on the South Hill), and we’ve hit a couple of the Thai Bamboo locations (including Coeur d’Alene). A trusted palate on the North Side recommended a Taste of Thai. We’re even excited for Our Thai House to open in the old Rusty Roofs burger joint in the Gonzaga district near where we are often working.

So how to talk Thai? We enlisted an enthusiastic young fan, Chase Earling, whom we hope will become a contributor in the future. He’s a good choice because he’s one of the few young people we found who puts Thai before pizza.

He took his wife to Grandma Jai’s Excellent Thai in Airway Heights and offered an enthusiastic report – although finding it was difficult because of poor signage.

“We walked into Grandmas and that’s exactly what it felt like,” Earling said.

Unfortunately Grandma was making deliveries, which seems to be a big part of the Thai business, and the service was stretched a bit thin. It also meant no fresh spring rolls. However, the deep fried spring rolls and unexpected wings were good appetizers. And the server contributed a couple of pot stickers.

“We were about stuffed before our meals arrived,” he said, although he pointed out that his wife’s glass of red wine came out chilled.

The main courses were chicken Thai fried rice (unspiced) and pad woon sen stir fry (2 star) as recommended by the waitress.

“They came out piping hot and were loaded with fresh ingredients,” Earling said. “We rate all of our Thai food against Thai Kitchen, and we were both thoroughly impressed. … To top it off, the peanut sauce and Thai iced teas were also amazing. The peanut sauce had a slight kick. I judge a Thai restaurant by the peanut sauce, and this is near the top of my list.

“The only downside is we did not get to experience Grandma’s cooking.”

Grandma Jai arrived midway through their meal and greeted everyone in the restaurant, with all the regulars calling her Grandma and her responding with their names.

“Her personality reminded me of Paul from Thai Kitchen,” Earling said. “You could tell she puts her heart and soul into the restaurant, and the customers reap the benefits of an excellent meal and homelike atmosphere.”

In the three critical categories we emphasized to Earling, he gave the service an 8, cleanliness an 8 and a 10 for “a good bang for your buck.”

Piping hot

Geno’s on Hamilton has reopened after a fire last summer and is now owned by the Elk/Moon Time ownership group; first reports are excellent. … Maybe another issue with Thai food is not being able to tell it from other Asian places with a vast menu. One of those would be Asia, near 57th Avenue and Regal Street on the South Hill. We reviewed that favorably last winter and have returned to enjoy another great meal and dining experience, although were surprised by the lack of patronage.  This is one of those neighborhood spots we get asked about after they close: Why, they were really good?!  We mentioned this a number of months ago and our opinion is there’s a shared responsibility between a restaurant to do a quality job and the locals patronizing it to keep it up and running.  Although it’s fun to occasionally roll the dice and hope for the best with a new restaurant, those dollars spent there are the grease that keeps the wheels turning in that “great little spot around the corner” that has already proven itself.

Former S-R writer Dave Trimmer and former restaurateur Dan Coyle share recent finds and longtime favorites in this column, which runs monthly. Reach them at daveanddan@hotmail.com.


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