Fit to be Thai’d

Pasatiempo - - Restaurant Review - Lau­rel Glad­den

In the episode of Sex and the City called “Se­cret Sex,” Mr. Big takes Car­rie to a se­cluded, seedy Chi­nese restau­rant. Every­one there looks cagey and ap­pre­hen­sive — even a friend Car­rie spies across the room is re­luc­tant to in­tro­duce her to his date. Car­rie be­gins to sus­pect that Big has taken her there be­cause he’s em­bar­rassed to be seen with her. Turns out he just re­ally likes greasy Chi­nese food— call it his “se­cret Szechuan.”

Af­ter a hand­ful of re­cent meals at Dara Thai, I started to think it was that kind of es­tab­lish­ment— one I’d have to be co­erced to go to. The food’s not es­pe­cially bad. It’s just con­sis­tently medi­ocre and ut­terly re­sistible. If you’ve got a se­ri­ous han­ker­ing for Thai, noth­ing here is likely to sat­isfy it.

Though the stuc­coed build­ing near the cor­ner of Cer­ril­los Road and Sec­ond Street looks weary, the closer you get, the more promis­ing it smells. An oddly ap­peal­ing, sa­vory, greasy aroma em­anates from the front door and haunts the back park­ing lot. The din­ing rooms are cer­tainly col­or­ful and un­like oth­ers in town — de­pend­ing on where you sit, you’ll be sur­rounded by bam­boo, mon­keys, par­rots, or monks air­brushed onto the walls.

The cre­ativ­ity mostly ends there. The menu of­fers de rigueur selections, in­clud­ing red, yel­low, and green cur­ries; tom yum and tom ka soups; and canon­i­cal rice and noo­dle dishes. You can have Thai beer, Thai cof­fee, and bold, if overly sweet, Thai iced tea. Ser­vice is brisk and ef­fi­cient, and the kitchen will adapt most any dish for veg­e­tar­i­ans. But rather than fea­tur­ing some of Thai­land’s more ex­otic, au­then­tic dishes, Dara Thai caters to din­ers who aren’t fa­mil­iar with that na­tion’s cui­sine or don’t re­ally like it. Cashew chicken, or­ange chicken, beef and broc­coli in brown sauce, bland chicken and fried rice, veg­eta­bles in oys­ter sauce, and teriyaki and sweet-and-sour tofu are fix­tures.

One of the best things about Thai cui­sine is its dis­tinc­tive and bal­anced com­bi­na­tion of hot, sweet, and salty. Many dishes at Dara Thai swing wide into sticky-sweet or wildly salty ter­ri­tory, and some­times, pe­cu­liarly, into both.

The pad Thai— a dish by which the cal­iber of any Thai restau­rant might fairly be judged — led with a ro­bust salty sweet­ness. The dish’s char­ac­ter­is­tic smoky, nutty fla­vor was al­most en­tirely ab­sent, though (a show­er­ing of peanuts notwith­stand­ing). The sauce had a glossy, syrupy, pre­man­u­fac­tured qual­ity to it. A cloy­ing­ness lin­gered on my tongue, yet the salt level com­pelled me to guz­zle wa­ter.

Two cur­ries we sam­pled— Panang and yel­low gaeng kari— were ac­cept­able, though be­neath the rich heat of the lat­ter lurked an odd corn-syrupy sweet­ness. White pep­per and gar­lic added ad­dic­tive, pow­er­ful heat to the gar­lic tofu and its fresh veg­eta­bles, but the overly salty sauce ren­dered the dish nearly ined­i­ble. The tom yum goong is on the salty side as well; still, I re­call its tur­bocharged broth, po­tent lemon grass, toothy mush­rooms, plump pink shrimp, and hot after­glow fondly. One dish, tofu with mixed veg­eta­bles, achieved the de­sired sea­son­ing bal­ance.

At lunch, en­trées are pre­ceded by soup or salad. It’s hard to say which is less ap­peal­ing: the soup, which con­sists of cu­cum­ber cubes and tiny bits of chicken float­ing in a salty brown­ish-clear broth, or the diminu­tive salad of limp greens and a glob of sickly sweet bro­ken emul­sion peanut-gin­ger dress­ing. Both seemed more like com­pul­sory of­fer­ings than dishes made with care. Every­one likes com­ple­men­tary ap­pe­tiz­ers, but frankly, I’d rather skip th­ese.

The evening ap­pe­tizer menu does in­clude some time­honored choices like larb (beef or chicken with mint, chili, lime juice, and onion). The pip­ing-hot crispy tofu lived up to its de­scrip­tion, though its sauce was overly sweet. On the ap­pe­tizer sam­pler plate, only the satay was mem­o­rable in a good way— though the peanut sauce can be added to the ros­ter of too-sweet stuff. The veg­gie rolls were lack­lus­ter and greasy, though th­ese are some­times de­sir­able char­ac­ter­is­tics when you have an egg-roll crav­ing. The su­per­fried won­ton and its sticky-sweet cream-cheese fill­ing seemed bet­ter suited to dessert.

Car­rie Brad­shaw is fa­mous for de­bat­ing the virtues (or lack thereof) of de­layed grat­i­fi­ca­tion, al­though she’s usu­ally talk­ing about sex, not din­ner. The food at Dara Thai is ac­cept­able, par­tic­u­larly if you’re in the mood for some­thing Asian and you’re in the neigh­bor­hood. You can find su­pe­rior Thai a lit­tle fur­ther up the road, though, so I couldn’t help but won­der whether bet­ter food would be worth the wait.

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