Fit to be Thai’d
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.