As a food writer, I often grapple with the concept of culinary authenticity. Few of us can travel the world, a la Anthony Bourdain, to explore a culture's culinary heritage at its source. Most of us embark on a more metaphorical journey of exploration. And by "metaphorical journey of exploration," I mean "restaurant in a strip mall."
I can speak authoritatively on the authenticity of New York-style pizza, bagels and lox, a Jersey Italian sub and my mother's chicken noodle soup. Other than that, I'm often just comparing one restaurant's version of a country's cuisine to another's. So I usually dismiss the question, "Is this authentic?" in favor of the question, "Does this taste good?"
I've been ruminating on this topic ever since eating at So Thai, a new Thai eatery in Spenard. I sampled a few dishes and, flying in the face of empirical logic and personal food-reviewing policy, I thought: "This tastes so authentic."
So I was relieved (and not a little smug) when, in a timely coincidence, I was contacted by David Urrea, a reader and fellow foodie who recommended So Thai. He writes, "Having personally been to Thailand, it reminds me a lot of the true cultural experience… no frills, just authentic Thai cuisine with the right portion size." In the future, I would like to verify my instincts through extensive travel and personal gluttony. But an email is nice too.
My daughter and I wandered in for a late weekend lunch and while the decor is no frills, it's also decidedly cheerful. The dining room is spare and immaculate, with bright floral tablecloths and a few ribbons festooning the light fixtures. Thai pop music was playing at a gentle volume. A large-screen TV was set to an Asian cooking show with the volume off. We were greeted immediately and warmly.
I began with a Thai iced tea. When it arrived in an old-fashioned ice-cream parlor glass, my daughter looked intrigued. She took a sip. "It's like a grown-up milkshake," she said, approvingly. The creamy, slightly sweet coconut milk perfectly tempers the assertive, pleasantly bitter tea. I had to pace myself so as not to fill up before our entrees arrived.
My daughter and I decided to share the sua rong hai or Crying Tiger ($14), the gaeng kiew wan (green curry, $11), and the kuay tiew num dang (a pork noodle soup, $11). The noodle options allow you to choose your preferred noodle (thin rice, egg, vermicelli, glass, flat and instant noodles are all on offer) and then to choose whether you want your dish to be "dry" or to be served as a soup.
The Crying Tiger was a generous portion of pleasantly fatty grilled beef served with rice and jaew (described on the menu as, simply, "a northeastern sauce"). The meat was flavorful, though a bit difficult to handle with chopsticks, but the sauce stole the show. Made up of dried chilies, fish sauce, lime juice, cilantro and toasted rice powder, this sauce packed a powerful flavor punch. I'm a sucker for acid and umami, and this sauce delivered both in perfect balance. I would buy this sauce by the bottle and pour it on everything. So Thai: Make a note.
I usually avoid curries at lunch because they're often too rich for a midday meal. But this curry was light and broth-y, with just a hint of the buttery element that coconut milk brings to a dish. I loved the abundance of Thai eggplant — a vegetable that magically maintains its shape and texture even while absorbing the sauces its cooked in. My only complaint was that we ordered it spicy (three chili peppers according to the menu code) and it wasn't quite spicy enough. So if you like heat, order it like you mean it.
The noodle soup featured mild, sausage-like pork balls, stewed pork, tendon, green onion, cilantro and garlic in a dark, complex broth that tasted like it had been simmering for days. It had a rich and earthy meatiness, beautifully offset by the herbs and a heap of still-crisp bean sprouts. The handful of noodles (we opted for flat) were a background component to this dish — not the main event — which kept the dish light despite the intensity of the flavor and the abundance of protein. We left satisfied, but not overly full and with only a small container of leftover curry.
I returned the following week for a solo dinner. A table full of Thai-speaking diners (I assume, since they were conversing with the restaurant staff) were having an infectiously good time and I tried to unobtrusively peer at their table to see what they were enjoying. I failed.
I ordered the chai yo chicken wing appetizer ($8), mostly because the wings were described as being tossed in my new favorite thing — jaew sauce. For my entree, I chose the kuay num kon — a tom yum-style soup (opting for thin rice noodles, $11). The chicken wings were a bit disappointing. They were a tad overcooked and the punchy flavor of the sauce was somehow missing. I spiced them up with some condiments from the table, but gave up after eating only a couple.
The noodle soup, however, was incredible. This time when I ordered, I was emphatic in asking for extra spice. My server seemed skeptical, though eager to please. You're sure? Very spicy? Once convinced, he brought me the bowl of the heat and flavor I've been looking for all my life. This broth was so bright and citrus-y that even I was satisfied. As for the spice? One bite had me reaching for my water. The second had me reaching for the soup spoon again. My server came to check on me. "Not too hot?" he asked. "Perfect," I croaked. "Next time ask for Thai spicy," he said, confidentially, as he removed my empty bowl.
I'll admit it. I'm a little bit proud of that.
Authenticity is an elusive concept subject to regional differences, cross-cultural influences and personal experience. I love to hear from readers who have a personal knowledge of specific cuisines. In the meantime, I'll just continue to ask: "Does this taste good?" In the case of So Thai, the answer is an emphatic yes.
Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Wednesday-Monday, closed Tuesday
Location: 2602 Spenard Road