People always assume that writing restaurant reviews is some sort of dream job. You get to go to wonderful restaurants and then talk about what you ate. Fun, right? Well, the truth is that restaurant reviewing is hard, thankless work and requires a lot of … um … never mind. I'm not fooling anyone. It is a dream job.
Eating things and then talking about it is my favorite thing to do even when I'm not being paid to do it. But it's much more fun when people talk back. I especially love hearing from readers about their favorite restaurants. A recent article about my favorite strip mall eateries prompted a number of readers to draw my attention to some as-yet-undiscovered (by me) gems around town. Thai Orchid, a modest little strip mall spot in the culinary desert of Lake Otis Parkway and Dowling Road, is one of them.
I took my daughters in for a mid-week lunch and the bright, clean, but fairly bare-bones dining room was doing a pretty brisk business. Also brisk was the weather, so both of the girls opted for soup — Thai beef noodle ($13) for one and chicken udon ($13) for the other — with an agreement to share. I ordered ka pao with chicken from the lunch special menu (there's a choice of seven entrees with a spring roll and a cup of soup for $12). We also shared an order of the Thai Orchid chicken wings ($13.50).
Our soups, including the complimentary cup that came with my lunch special, were a bit of a mixed bag. We all agreed that the beef soup, with its rich meaty broth teeming with house-made rice noodles and an abundance of meatballs, was the clear winner. Bean sprouts, white and green onions and a generous handful of cilantro brightened this bowl up and kept it from feeling too heavy. Less successful was the chicken soup, which had a strangely sweet broth that lacked strong chicken flavor. We did, however, like the fat, tender udon noodles, the generous handful of fresh herbs and the thin strips of pork loaf that lent a bit of much-needed salinity to the dish. Sadly, I had no use whatsoever for the small bowl of bland vegetable soup that came with my lunch special. I did like the fat chunks of celery that were cooked to a creamy, almost potato-y, consistency but the rest of the cup had very little flavor.
Happily, my entree completely wiped out my disappointment with the soup. The ka pao features a generous portion of thinly sliced chicken sauteed in a light and lovely sauce with just a hint of sweetness and hint of heat. Vibrant and pungent jalapenos; fresh, fragrant, almost pine-y basil leaves; and a subtle hit of chili pepper combine to make a dish that felt substantial and warming, but not weighty.
And then there were the Thai Orchid chicken wings. Oh, those wings. Deep fried to a crackling crispness and blanketed in a sticky, sweet sauce with a hint of heat, these decadent little nuggets eliminated any smugness over my "light" stir-fry as I crunched my way through the heaping plateful. Plans for a walk soon became plans for a nap. My complete lack of willpower made these a poor lunch decision. But I would happily bring them to a tailgating party where sharing is compulsory. They would not, I suspect, last long.
I ordered a takeout dinner the following week for my family and an extra teenager or two. The menu, when you're not limiting yourself to the lunch specials, can be a bit overwhelming. I would almost prefer a more concise selection, as many of the dishes seem like only slight variations on each other. There are nine curries, six fried rice variations, 15 noodle dishes and 10 soups, just to mention a few categories.
I ordered the Thai Orchid wings again and attempted to get to the bottom of its addictive sauce. The lady on the phone was not forthcoming. "It's house-made," she said, firmly. Is there any tomato in it? Any honey? "It's sweet. With chili," she said vaguely. Respect. I have a secret sauce for my hamburgers that can be wheedled out of me after only two glasses of wine (it doesn't even have to be good wine). I considered pretending to have allergies but decided that my depths of culinary espionage don't run that deep.
For additional starters, I ordered shrimp rolls ($10), beef larb salad ($13) and som tum (papaya salad, $10.50). The shrimp rolls were crispy, cigar-like little mouthfuls with the shrimp tail still intact. We were conflicted about whether to eat the tails — they were so well fried that they crumbled, cracker-like, into crunchy little shards. I tossed the rolls back whole, but the girls fed their shrimp tails to the dogs. Lucky dogs.
The papaya salad was another favorite. A refreshing Thai staple, it's like "The Best Of Thai Food" in one bowl. Salty, sweet and sour flavors meet fresh and fermented flavors. Silky strands of papaya meet the crunch of ground peanuts. It's a beautifully balanced dish when done right, and this one was perfect. I could eat it with every meal.
The larb — another Thai favorite of mine — was a disappointment. The beef had a strangely flat and musty flavor, as if it hadn't been properly drained and seasoned before being mixed with the larb dressing. The other elements of the dish were successful — I love the crunch of the ground toasted rice and the freshness of the lime, mint and cilantro. But I was so turned off by the flavor of the beef that the dish went mostly uneaten. The larb can also be ordered with pork or chicken and if I order it again, I'll be opting for a different protein.
Our entrees were uniformly good — the generous portion of well-balanced phat Thai ($13) was demolished in no time, particularly by the teenagers in the house. The phat pik khing with chicken, kaffir leaves, chili paste and a generous heap of "al dente" asparagus was, like my ka pao — a light, fresh, well-executed stir-fry. And the pah naeng curry ($14) with red curry paste, coconut milk, spinach, basil, kaffir and basil was rich and creamy with a subtle heat that was just right for a crowd.
With one or two exceptions, the food at Thai Orchid was fresh, well-prepared, generously portioned and tasty. I'll be back to work my way through more of their extensive menu. In the meantime, I'll be trying to discover the secret of their special sauce. Or maybe I'll just live with the mystery and put their number on speed dial.
Hours: Lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and dinner 4:30-9 p.m. Monday-Friday. 5-9 p.m. Saturday. Closed Sundays.
Location: 5905 Lake Otis Parkway, Suite A
Contact: 907-868-5226, thaiorchidalaska.com