Baby, it’s cold inside

Pasatiempo - - Restaurant Review - Lau­rel Glad­den I For The New Mex­i­can

You might have a hard time stay­ing warm in the din­ing room of Thai Café, a ba­sic Thai-food restau­rant on the cor­ner of San Francisco and Guadalupe streets. De­spite a vestibule de­signed to min­i­mize noise and blasts of arc­tic winds, chilly air makes its way into the din­ing room this time of year, and almost ev­ery ta­ble feels mys­te­ri­ously drafty. For­tu­nately, Thai food, with its lib­eral use of se­ri­ous chile and fra­grant aro­mat­ics, is the sort that can warm you up quickly. But un­for­tu­nately, much of the food at Thai Café left me cold.

The menu of­fers a fair amount of flex­i­bil­ity when it comes to spici­ness: mild, medium, hot, and “Thai hot” lev­els are avail­able, the last clock­ing in at a claimed 150,000- 250,000 Scov­ille units ( habañero in­ten­sity). Medium pro­vides a sat­is­fy­ing warmth that you’ll no­tice but soon for­get. If you ask for hot, your server might look at you skep­ti­cally and re­di­rect you to a lesser in­ten­sity. This is how we learned about “medium plus,” a sub­tlety the menu doesn’t men­tion but one that made us sweat. If the kitchen doesn’t think most of its cus­tomers can take the heat, why of­fer ad­vanced spicy choices?

At lunch and din­ner, only one server was man­ning the front of the house. At din­ner, this meant that new pa­trons would of­ten wait sev­eral min­utes to be seated, and we waited long pe­ri­ods for food and for the check to ar­rive. The staff seems a lit­tle bet­ter pre­pared at lunch — maybe there’s a rush of lo­cal busi­ness­peo­ple. Ev­ery­one seemed friendly, if a bit on the shy side.

Lunch plates in­clude a cup of clear, saf­fron-tinted brothy soup with the pro­nounced funky tang of fish sauce and a touch of heat. The yel­low mus­saman curry is a hearty, gravy­like base flecked with chile and stud­ded with potato and peanuts. It was rich and spicy but dom­i­nated by an odd sweet­ness. The light but strongly fla­vored sauce of the pad ped ga praw (basil and lime leaves, chile, bam­boo stalk, onion, slightly toothy broc­coli, and, in this case, blocks of chewy golden tofu) had a sim­i­lar sweet­ness be­fore the heat set in. The spicy fried rice is sticky and saucy and also oddly sweet, though shrimp, pep­pers, tomato, onion, and strips of egg bal­ance things out with a pleas­ant sa­vory qual­ity.

The din­ner menu in­cludes ap­pe­tiz­ers, sal­ads, stir fries, noo­dles, and rice dishes. The aro­matic soups fea­ture the co­conut-milk-based tom ka gai, filled with shreds of mostly fla­vor­less chicken but given aro­matic lift by lemon­grass, galan­gal, kaf­fir lime leaf, and cilantro. The tom yum goong is a clearer hot-and-sour broth ac­cented by toma­toes, onion, mush­room slices, and a few pre­cooked shrimp. Both have that cu­ra­tive power one looks for in a soup, es­pe­cially in the mid­dle of win­ter.

With their crisp, light-green let­tuce, the “fresh rolls” were true to their name, but oth­er­wise, they were a trav­esty — the rice pa­per tacky, flimsy, and im­prop­erly sealed. The wrap­per fell apart at the mer­est touch, al­low­ing let­tuce, clumpy wads of rice noo­dle, and wrinkly, over­cooked baby shrimp to tum­ble out be­fore get­ting any­where near your mouth. The house-made sauce looked gor­geously golden but left an off-puttingly sweet stick­i­ness on our fin­gers.

Hearty cubes of golden fried tofu make up the bulk of the lovely salad that in­cludes crunchy pur­ple cab­bage, pun­gent red onion, pep­pers of the sweet and hot va­ri­ety, shred­ded car­rot, and a mouth­wa­ter­ingly tangy, spicy dress­ing — all swad­dled in leaves of del­i­cate but­ter let­tuce.

When eval­u­at­ing a restau­rant, pad Thai can be a good bench­mark. Here, it has an ex­cel­lent smok­i­ness, and the sauce is pun­gent, bright, and, at even at medium-plus, almost panic-in­duc­ingly spicy. The noo­dles, though, were oddly gluey and greasy, the pork pieces fully cooked but not hot. Scraps of egg were overly present, while peanuts were in short sup­ply.

If you’re in­clined to or­der on the spicier side — as a bunch of Tex­ans at a nearby ta­ble was do­ing on one of my vis­its — be pre­pared to sweat. A cold, slightly sweet Singha beer from Thai­land can serve as a re­fresh­ing cooler. Or there’s the smooth, rich, but not overly sweet green-tea ice cream, which was a wel­come balm for our burn­ing tongues. Maybe next time, as a pre­cau­tion­ary mea­sure, I’ll or­der dessert to eat along­side my en­tree.

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