1302 S. 500 East, Salt Lake City ; 801-467-4070
Gorgeous curries and soups at this down-to-earth Thai venue close to Liberty Park.
Hours: M-Th, 11:30am-3pm, 5-9:30 pm; F-S, 11:30am-3pm; 5-10pm; Su, 5-9:30pm
Liquor: Beer & Wine
Recommended Dishes: Tom kha soup, green curry, honey shrimp.
July 15, 2009
Tasty Thai displays skill while skipping the saccharine
By Vanessa Chang
It's easy to be cynical about Thai food. I for one know because I am ... or was. These days there are almost as many Thai restaurants in northern Utah as there are ward houses. From Logan to Salt Lake City to Utah County, it's a Thai-happy trail complete with names that pair an adjective with the word "Thai." (Just in case you sat down to eat, looked at the menu and couldn't tell curry from Crab Louie.)
I saw the cynicism and reluctance in a friend's face when I asked if she would visit Tasty Thai with me. "Thai?" she said, drawing out the one syllable while thinking of excuses not to go. I could see her recalling the memories of bad-Thai-meals-past -- the heavy-handed sweet curries, the near-identical menus.
Perhaps it's our fault that most Thai establishments are nearly indistinguishable from one another. Instead of expanding our Thai repertoire, wary proprietors play it safe with the usual suspects of red curry and pad Thai overburdened with one-dimensional sweetness. Can't say that I blame them. Sugar is our de facto drug of choice around these parts. Lace it in any dish, particularly of the Asian variety, and it's more or less an instant hit.
So when we sat down at Tasty Thai, just a stone's throw from Liberty Park, we braced ourselves for a saccharine jolt. The soup arrived first, the quintessential tom kha ($3.95 to $5.95). We stirred the bowl, summoning the tender pieces of chicken, mushrooms, galangal, lemon grass and deep green kaffir lime leaves.
The pale white coconut milk was the canvas for the aromatics (which you leave in the bowl, eat only your meat of choice and mushrooms) and each bite displayed the requisite sweetness, but the sharpness of galangal and the tang of fresh lime juice also punctuated on our tongues. It was invigorating. Thai soup lovers should make it a point to taste Tasty Thai's. The hot and sour tom yum and its aforementioned milk-spiced cousin (both $3.95 to $5.95) were equally well executed.
The server, who was also the host, checked in on us frequently. Whether it's dinner or lunch, at Tasty Thai there's usually only one gracious server/host/hostess and an army of ladies in the open kitchen that reminded me of a school cafeteria -- if I only had this for lunch in high school. This place doesn't need the polish or panache of concept restaurants or places that rely too heavily on sleek packaging to compensate for mediocre dishes. The food is enough.
Our order came out quickly and piping hot. The menu's spice levels are measured with one, two or three chilies -- which is called "Thai hot," and I dare you -- aren't for the meek. I figure if I'm going to sweat, I'd rather it be from a good dish than the relentless summer heat or, gasp, a workout.
I have a weakness for Thai salads, particularly in the summer. Larb ($7.95) or yum neur ($7.95) pairs ground or sliced meat tossed with lime juice, chilies, mint leaves and sticky rice. This is my health food, and any subsequent sweat I consider detoxifying. In the salads and other sections, you find these regulars and some less familiar offerings, such as the seasonal yum watercress ($8.95). Chicken, shrimp, squid, cashews and crispy fried watercress in that lime vinaigrette sounds odd, but the texture and flavor are satisfying.
Honey shrimp ($15.95) sounds like a gamble to the sugar-phobic, but it's one of the best dishes on the menu. The shrimp is generous in size and tender, and its crispy batter coating is light and thin. The sauce progresses from sweet sticky honey to the scent of green onions and finally into the warmth of a generous sprinkling of freshly ground black pepper. Sweetness certainly has its place when it's composed this well.
For a moment, forget the shallot-spiked moules of the French and dive into hoy obb ($6.95) with lemon grass and basil that temper the hot and sour broth, spiked with the mussels' briny juices. The only caveat: The shellfish can come out quite tough and over salted. Other dishes miss the mark, mostly appetizers. Chicken spring rolls ($5.95) are crispy but wan of flavor. Fish cake is still no more appealing in a good curry-based sauce and cucumber relish.
Of course, there's the ever-popular Thai lunch ($6.95) with salad -- I recommend the house vinaigrette. Yes, there's pad Thai. But consider the pad kee mow ($6.95 to $11.95) with its wide rice noodles laced over chunks of meat, vine sweet tomatoes, basil and lots of chili. Pad prik khing ($6.95 to $11.95) is a delicious stir-fry with a brick red curry, that hauntingly beautiful kaffir lime and snappy green beans.
Curries are no less spectacular. Panang or gang keow whan (green curry; both $6.95 to $11.95) are polar opposites in consistency and flavor. The bolder panang, reminiscent in texture to a good mole, is earthy but not overbearing on tender meat. The more delicate green curry is soupier, which seems to suit the gentle notes of kaffir lime and lemon grass. It's harder to spoon over rice, but it shouldn't deter you from taking it straight from its serving bowl and alternating bites of fragrant jasmine rice.
It's easy to be skeptical, but Tasty Thai's vibrant, balanced flavors are perfect for the curry-wary or Thai curious. With reasonable prices and its friendly mien, it's also a pretty sweet deal.
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.