4410 S. 900 East, Salt Lake City ; 801-266-7899
Affordable lunch combos and delicious Thai food in an attractive setting, keep regulars as well as first-timers coming.
Hours: M-F, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m., 5-9 p.m.; S, 5-10 p.m.
Liquor: Beer & Wine
Corkage: $ 10
Reservations: For large parties only
Recommended Dishes: Tom kha gai (coconut chicken soup), yellow curry, mango sticky rice.
January 29, 2009
Thai Garden blossoms in an unlikely location
By Vanessa Chang
Murray » As much as we think of them as solely businesses, restaurants are living, breathing things. They evolve. They waver. They develop their own personalities with quirks and tics that endear us to them or deter us from getting to know them on a more personal level. And for those of us with favorites, we consider these restaurants (chefs, owners, servers and all) as much a part of our lives as good neighbors and friends would be.
That's the sentiment Thai Garden evokes in many diners. On any given day, during the rush for the affordable $6.95 combo meal, or on any night, regulars and neighborhood locals keep Thai Garden's pulse steady throughout economic booms and downturns. To be sure, Thai Garden has its hiccups. But its friendly mien, a few standout dishes such as its yellow curry and its presence in strip mall suburbia make it bearable to regulars and those experiencing it for the first time.
The dining area itself is one continuous space, broken up by a large tropical fish aquarium, tables and booths along the wall. Owner Vipada Barry softened the strip mall blandness with earth tones, Thai textiles and sound tracks. Chances are, she's the one who will seat you. After that, just about everyone on the service crew will stop by the table, filling water glasses, taking orders, bringing food and eventually, the tab. For all that face time, service was friendly, but flighty.
One of the most appealing things about Thai food is its visceral nature. Glistening platters of creamy red curry leave appetizing vapor trails. Stir-fries of ground pork and silky eggplant medallions sizzle when brought to the table. Crunchy morsels of fried salmon top a bed of greens in a bracingly tangy dressing. And of course, the piquancy of these dishes evokes corporeal reactions. We sweat, we sniffle, we eat.
Most items come with the option of mild, medium or hot levels. On other visits, curries have come out hotter than expected, which for me is a good thing. But the most recent experience, medium came out medium and no one really needed a Singha beer ($5) or Thai iced tea ($1.99) to extinguish any flames. If a beverage won't quell the heat, end the meal with smooth grains of Thai dessert sticky rice ($5.99). Creamy with coconut milk, it comes topped with fresh ripe mango (only when the kitchen has them) and dense, sweet Thai custard.
Tom kha gai ($3.50; $10.99) provides a gentler, but no less aromatic Thai experience. The classic Thai soup is redolent of lemongrass, lime leaves, galangal and a splash of lime juice. Mixed together by an experienced hand, they create an exotic and delicately balanced backdrop for strips of tender strips of chicken. The refreshing, rejuvenating broth is a favorite of spice wimps and freaks alike.
Despite its tropical heritage, a bowlful of Thai Garden's version could do wonders for those of us living in much colder and gloomier climes.
Noodle lovers, take note: Make sure you have the menu insert. When a server brought out a fat, squat bowl of nested noodles topped with a wonton and slices of barbecued pork to another table, I asked her what it was. She handed me the insert of noodle soup specialties Thai Garden now offers. Later outside, I noticed the footnote attached to Thai Garden's glowing marquis: "Noodle House."
For rice enthusiasts, there's yellow curry ($9.99) with chunks of tender boiling potatoes. A little wicker tub of sticky rice comes with a plate of nom tuk ($10.99), seared beef over sliced red onions, greens and herbs. It could be considered a refreshing take on a steak salad -- crunchy, bright and fully flavored. But the toasted rice powder that's added for texture was too toothsome against the tender beef.
One dish that needed more nuance was flat, wide-noodles ($9.99). The bland looking mound was silky in texture -- and that was about it. The same could be said of the fried banana dessert ($5.99). The accompanying coconut ice cream was refreshing and creamy, but the crunchy hot nuggets were devoid of the soft banana sweetness we expected.
At Thai Garden's price points, these missteps are forgivable. But they exemplify the inevitable truth about any restaurant's existence -- inconsistency. As living and breathing things, born from dreams and ambitions and dependent on many people, they are bound to waver. But so long as they keep up certain strengths (and Thai Garden does indeed have them) and a friendly face, regulars accept the bumpy ride as part of a dining adventure.
Tribune's rating system
1 star Good
2 stars Very good
3 stars Excellent
4 stars Extraordinary
$ Entree under $10
$$$$ Above $25
1 bell Quiet (under 65 decibles)
2 bells Can talk easily (65-70)
3 bells Talking somewhat difficult (70-75)
4 bells Raised voices (75-80)
A bomb Too noisy for normal conversation (80+)
The Tribune covers the cost of all meals at reviewed restaurants. Star ratings are based on a minimum of two visits. Ratings are updated continually based on at least one revisit. There is no connection between reviews and advertising.
January 14, 2005
By Nancy Hobbs
It's hard not to be smitten by the charm and ambience of Thai Garden restaurant, a genteel little diner with ample heart and a fiery soul. At the core of its spirit, as with most any small business, are the owners, Vipada Chitratont Barry and Pornpawit Numnuan, who opened the restaurant of their dreams last September. In keeping with Thai custom, the business partners are best known to friends and customers by their nicknames: she as Ben, and he as Pawit.
The two, who move around the tables of Thai Garden quickly, quietly and often with disarming efficiency, have discovered that customers are embracing the "real food" of their homeland, chiles and all. The food here is not diluted for softer palates, and there are no iconic flames that warn which dish is hotter than the next.
But here's a valuable tip: Start with the premise that Thai food, by nature, has a bit of spice kick. If Thai chiles or chile paste are listed among a menu item's ingredients, count on adding a few rungs on the ladder toward inferno.
"We are real Thai," says Pawit. "I'm born in Thailand. My mother fed me spicy when I was a baby."
And there's little that makes him happier than seeing diners truly enjoying their food. "I can see people sweat and tear because it's so spicy," he says, thrilled about those who obviously enjoy the burn.
Not surprisingly, those tables add significantly to the workload at Thai Garden, with water and beer becoming precious commodities that keep the staff on high alert. Our table alone went through plenty of both on a recent night (the Thai Singha beer was especially good), and felt there should be a special award for the young man who never let our water glasses -- nor anyone else's in the crowded restaurant -- run dry.
While his service was remarkable, so it was with service in general on a lunch and dinner visit. The owners seem to use an efficient team approach to taking orders, delivering the food and checking back frequently, with the result that we felt sated and well taken care of on both occasions.
That made it easier to honor the simple request made with a small folded placard set at each table. For the month of January, the wait staff at Thai Garden is donating 30 percent of tips to the tsunami relief effort in southern Asia.
Pawit later explained that the tips, plus anything that customers add to a jar at the restaurant's front counter, will go to the fund-raising efforts of Thai Princess Ubolratana Mahidol, whose 21-year-old autistic son was killed by the tsunami.
Pawit says he is lucky to hail from northern Thailand, which was spared physical damage from the tsunami. But his 76-year-old mother, still in her Thai home, is struggling to cope with the disaster's toll on the entire country.
For those of us far removed from the tragedy, it is heartening to be able to help in any way, however small, and the connection provided by the Thai Garden's owners is welcome.
We chatted briefly with some other diners who had vacationed in Thailand and came to the Thai Garden in hopes of reconnecting with the country and people they came to admire. The authentic food and Pawit's friendly demeanor rekindled fond memories.
Pawit's experience is primarily gained from years of working in the hospitality industry, serving visitors to the five-star Shangri La hotel in Bangkok. He quickly learned that customer service is paramount: He was to memorize visitors' names after a single introduction, know their cocktail of choice and deliver it when they arrived for their second visit to the bar, and never be less than totally gracious in salutations.
Those are skills he has brought to his restaurant venture and models to his staff, and they go a long way in making his customers feel pampered.
The restaurant's decor likewise is well suited to the task, with lots of Asian artwork, strings of lights that add a nice glow to the restaurant at night, Asian music playing softly in the background and, in a far corner, a television monitor with videos of traditional Thai dancing.
Some of that aura is lost in the daylight hours, but then you can see other unique touches that are easy to miss at night, such as the leaves.
I noticed a scattering of crisp fall leaves near the entrance of Thai Garden on our first visit; it seemed a bit strange here in the midst of a parking lot following several significant snowfalls, but easily dismissed.
After we were seated, I realized the leaves were all along the room's baseboards, with a few also pressed between the beautiful fabric cloths and glass tabletops. In the bathroom, the leaves, perfectly shaped and beautiful, were artfully scattered about. The touch had a surprisingly calming influence.
Turns out that Pawit spent more than a few hours up Mill Creek Canyon, filling bag upon bag with golden aspen, crimson maple and brown oak leaves.
Thai Garden is the kind of place diners will return to time and again, not only for the excellent and authentic cuisine -- of more than a dozen dishes, from traditional pad thai and several levels of curry to the incredible duck paradise, nothing disappointed -- but also for the comfortable setting and gracious service.