212 E. 500 South, Salt Lake City ; 801-328-4401
Take a risk in heat level and familiarity at this downtown Thai eatery.
Hours: M-F, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.; M-Th, 5-9 p.m.; F, 5-10 p.m.; S, 12:30-10 p.m.
Reservations: Not accepted/necessary
Recommended Dishes: Massaman curry, bacon with greens, warm Thai custard.
October 3, 2007
Epic menu is a springboard, so let your taste buds soar
By Vanessa Chang
The thing about Thai food in all its nascent popularity and prolific presence throughout the state is this: It shouldn't be just sweet. Sure, you've got to have a hit of that musky palm sugar, but its role is to tug against the bracing sour notes, bold saltiness and yes, a good degree of heat that are all swimming around in one dish (fans of saccharine central Thai and piquant northeastern Thai food may respectively disagree).
Another thing about Thai food -- there's more to it than pad Thai ($8.95), fried spring rolls ($4.95) and yellow curry ($8.95). You've got four major regional cuisines, not to mention the arsenal of aromatics that makes them all so alluring. At a place like Thai Lotus, you get an idea why this Southeast Asian cuisine has become so popular in Zion. They do the above-mentioned standard fare well, sating lunch crowds with affordable, but lackluster, combo meals ($6.55) and fried rice ($7.95 to $11.95). But the value in places like Thai Lotus, with its epic menus, is that it gives you a comfortable platform from which to jump headfirst into new Thai dishes. And there are plenty here to try.
For spice freaks it could be something as simple as getting "drunken noodles" ($8.95) with its substantial wide noodles in place of pad Thai to share family-style. Or temper a sweat-inducing meal -- spice levels here can be ordered mild, medium and hot -- with a clear soup with Napa cabbage ($7.95). The soup, a calming liquid swirling with tender leaves of cabbage and pork, is big enough to share with another person as a main course or with four as part of a whole meal. If you insist on some kick, add in one of the condiments from a special chili caddie featuring electric red sriracha sauce, dried chili flakes and sliced fresh Thai chilies marinating in a fish sauce. During such fiery feasts, a bottle of Singha beer ($4.50) or glass of Thai iced tea ($1.95) is always a good idea.
When it comes to curry, replace ubiquitous chicken with luscious slices of duck in red curry ($12.95). Or venture into northern Thai territory with a rich Massaman curry spiked with coconut milk and featuring a chunk of tender beef that shreds easily with a fork and was meant for the floral fragrance of jasmine rice.
Anything on the menu can be made vegetarian. Not-so-strict vegetarians also have ample options in abundant seafood. The deep-fried catfish chunks in a red curry were tough for the velvety sauce. But a whole sea bass ($14.95) steamed in soy sauce, ginger and green onion redeemed that section of the menu with every flaky, buttery bite. A spicy salad with shrimp ($10.95) is the epitome of the flavor-balancing act complete with fresh crunchy greens. The same version with steak ($9.95) entices carnivores with slices of medium rare beef, fresh mint leaves and shallots.
One perpetually favorite dish we sampled seemed a bit unusual: bacon, collard greens and rice. Surely, not from the Thai Muslim culinary repertoire; apart from the bed of jasmine rice wafting good smells, it sounds more like something you'd find at a rib joint. But the Southeast Asian version of this universally appealing combo of greens and fatty pork features thick cubes of crunchy, deep-fried (that's right!) bacon, al dente stems of collard greens and slender broccoli dressed with a warm mixture of soy and chili. For a party of four, we ordered two portions because really, who doesn't love bacon?
Quirky with its collection of faux foliage, golden-wood furniture and Thai art, there's a welcoming homegrown vibe that imbues the food and the service which is altogether friendly, helpful if you have questions (you will) and uneven in both busy and slow times. During a couple of weekend visits, the kitchen was continually out of a few obscure dishes Thai aficionados may want to try. Waiting for their dense and silky warm Thai custard ($4.95) with lotus seeds is worth it, except when it takes so long that it arrives cold. More formal diners may find this annoying. Fans of little, family-run ethnic eateries will attribute this to part of its quirky homespun nature. But quite frankly, if you ask for chopsticks in a Thai eatery you deserve every bit of the funny looks the servers give you.
Still, there's no question that Thai Lotus is still trying to balance itself out with service and efficiency, but the scope of the menu location on a busy 500 South make it a worthy addition to the Thai restaurant scene. To truly experience it, take a cue from Thai cuisine, especially the kind you find at Thai Lotus: Be bold. You may even sweat a little.
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.