Baby, it’s cold inside
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.