Thai cuisine is varied and creative for the culinary tourist and the home chef.
Thai food conjures up different images for different people. For many, the mention of Thai food immediately brings up thoughts of pad Thai, Zach Galifianakis, and curries that turn your lower intestine into a scene from “Backdraft”. For others, their experience with Thai food may be limited to the “Thai Kitchen”-brand instant noodle soup pack they picked it up on a glassy-eyed, late-night trip to BiLo.
Here, in the buckle of the Biscuit Belt, Thai food has not taken off like its Chinese and Mexican counterparts. While many “Asian” restaurants in town may offer up a sad version of pad Thai as a tip of the hat to their Thai brethren, Chattanooga only has four actual Thai restaurants (with a fifth in Ft. Oglethorpe). Venture into any of these restaurants and you are certain to find spicy Panang curry, tangy tom kha gai soup and, of course, the ubiquitous pad Thai. These mainstays of American Thai cuisine are always at the top of any menu, comforting the less-than-intrepid diner with their very approachable and somewhat familiar flavors, while also becalming them in a culinary comfort zone that some find hard to escape.
These “gateway” Thai dishes can be a solid choice at most Thai restaurants and are not simply American inventions (I’m looking at you, chimichangas and General Tso’s chicken) but they represent only a tiny sliver of Thai cuisine as a whole. One Thai national and local restaurant owner who wished to keep his comments anonymous told me, “People here are afraid to eat something new. It’s all pad Thai and curry, pad Thai and curry. Thai food is so much more than just pad and curry. I wish people would try other dishes and stop being so afraid. They would love all Thai food if they would just try!”
I must confess that Thai food is easily my favorite cuisine in the world. The streets and markets of Bangkok are the opium dens of the foodie world. The complex variety of flavors, the vast array of ingredients and the masterful combinations of spices and herbs create an almost euphoric, Pavlovian trigger response. While recently eating my way around Bangkok and parts of central/eastern Thailand, I felt like Warren Beatty making his way through Studio 54 circa 1978—pleasantly overwhelmed by the orgy of sensations seducing my senses and gleefully sampling everything being offered. Returning to Chattanooga meant leaving that heaven of sensations behind. I no longer felt like Warren Beatty at Studio 54. This was more like Val Kilmer at a “Batman” after-party. Something just wasn’t right.
Most American Thai restaurants lean heavily on food from central Thailand. Chattanooga is no exception, but you can still step away from the pad Thai and find a menu packed with irresistible food. For example, one of my absolute favorite dishes is prik khing. Yes, this sounds like an ’80s porn star name, but in fact it is a spectacularly flavorful dish sometimes spelled “prik king,” “phrik king,” “phrik khing” or “phat prik khing”. While it is a curry, it contains no coconut milk and is considered a “dry” curry, meaning it isn’t a soupy dish poured over rice, but has aromatic spices clinging to the main ingredients. I recently had prik khing at Thai Smile 3 on Market Street; their combination of shrimp, green beans, chili paste, galangal, lime leaf and a touch of palm sugar was near perfect. My lovely wife ordered Thai Smile’s take on the southern Thai dish pla tod, which is traditionally a whole turmeric fried fish, but this version uses tilapia filets seasoned with turmeric, lightly fried and served with basil and a finely balanced chili garlic sauce. It was every bit as delicious as it sounds, even without the fish’s head and that tasty, tasty face meat (you know my mantra: Face meat is the best meat).
Although we typically think of Chinese food when we think of duck, Thai Smile 3’s chef uses his Thai mother’s crispy, spicy duck recipe and it is spectacular. Their pad kapow (sometimes spelled “kra pow” or “ka-prow”) is a delightful homage to the street food dish you can get on almost every street corner in Bangkok. This very basic dish is just stir-fried meat (I prefer chicken) with chilis, onion, sweet peppers, garlic sauce and a bunch of basil, but it is an aromatic umami bomb for your mouth.
I could easily go on about the quirky dishes (and cooks) at Sawasdee or ramble about Thai Garden, the out-of-place gem in a Ft. Oglethorpe strip mall, but that takes all of the adventure out of the experience for you. Go forth to yon Thai restaurants, try new things and stop just ordering pad Thai. The glorious world of Thai food awaits!