Tiny but tasty 

An unassuming Royal Oak spot overflows with Thai treasures

click to enlarge Twisted Triple Threat Tasty Salad, with fried egg, flat noodles, greens, carrots, onions, cucumber, cilantro and Thai dressing. - ROB WIDDIS
  • Rob Widdis
  • Twisted Triple Threat Tasty Salad, with fried egg, flat noodles, greens, carrots, onions, cucumber, cilantro and Thai dressing.

Tongue Thai'd

32166 Woodward Ave., Royal Oak
248-549-4112

Just about every other hole-in-the-wall Asian joint in southeast Oakland County is serving Thai cuisine. Lighter and fresher on the palate than typical American-Chinese, Thai food is an obvious choice for a quick carryout dinner when you're in the mood for exotic spices and seasonings without all of the corn starch-thickened gravy and MSG. But Thai can also become dull and one-dimensional when prepared with cheap ingredients for a broad, Western audience. Frankly, exceptional Thai food is not easy to find in metro Detroit.

Despite its flippant name, Tongue Thai'd, Royal Oak's newest Thai restaurant on Woodward just north of 13 Mile Road, is serious about serving up quality food. Much of the menu is handmade in-house and it shows. Far from the insipid fare at some of the lesser Thai establishments, Tongue Thai'd creates satisfying dishes with both depth and clarity of flavor.

While you will almost certainly come back for the food, the atmosphere is a bit less attractive. The tiny dining space is located in an unremarkable Woodward strip mall and on cloudless evenings the setting sun blazes into the dining room through tall windows facing the western sky. The color scheme is mostly black and white, with small pieces of memorabilia somewhat haphazardly placed on the walls. Electronic dance and lounge music is piped in one notch higher on the volume knob than it should be, and the path to the bathroom is through the kitchen.

But none of this might be a problem once you are preoccupied with the food. Soups only come in large $5-$8 sizes, but if you're in the mood, they are superb. Tom kha combines the richness of coconut milk with the brilliance of lime and lemongrass. Though the chunks of ginger and lemongrass that rest at the bottom of the bowl aren't so edible, they help make a broth that's dense with flavor. The simple wonton soup is full of sprouts, rice noodles and tender, handmade wontons. Go crazy with the seafood tom yum loaded up with shrimp, squid, mussels, crab and fish balls.

We badly wanted to try the house-made spring roll appetizer but, like a testament to the instant popularity of Tongue Thai'd, they were already sold out of them both times we visited. Chicken and Thai basil potstickers, with an inky and mildly sweet dipping sauce, however, hit the spot. We weren't as taken with deep-fried, Thai-flavored wings. Even drenched in sauce, they were near dried-out.

There's an impressive list of salads. A simple house salad gets a hit of flavor with onion and pineapple. Lime juice and Thai chili spice a traditional green papaya salad. The "Twisted Triple Threat Tasty Salad," besides being exceedingly alliterative, is practically a plate of everything — plus a fried egg. Under "House Specialties" you'll find a mixed curry dish that sings with a few dozen flavors. Also remarkable here is a whole fried tilapia, topped with green pepper, onion, basil and a house-made red chili sauce.

If pad thai is the dish that should define a Thai restaurant, then Tongue Thai'd has this one covered. Theirs is cleaner, has more depth of flavor and is lighter on the palate than most — and tastes more in the spirit of Thai cuisine. Ga pow blends ground meat, basil, pepper and onion in a thin chili sauce. It's not the most aesthetically agreeable dish, but satisfying nonetheless. The wide rice noodles in pad-see-ewe are pleasantly yielding, and the sauce nicely complements the chewy, bittersweet Chinese broccoli.

The heat-scale runs from one to four. This is the customary range of local Thai restaurants, but we've yet to find any relationship among them — one joint's two is another's four, and so on. Unless you're well-trained in the practice of eating fiery foods, our best advice here is to go for a level two.

Temper the warmth a bit with a lemongrass tea or a floral and sweet chrysanthemum iced tea. A sugary Thai iced tea or iced coffee will do if you're in that particular frame of mind. Other sweet stuff includes a traditional dish of mango and sticky rice. You can order fried bananas plain, with ice cream, or with sticky rice. Halo-halo is a Filipino, pantry-emptying dessert with chickpeas, coconut gel, jackfruit and Jell-O in coconut milk and cream.

Tongue Thai'd is very much a work in progress. While the owners and staff are clearly serious about preparing the best possible food that they can manage, there are many details that need to be ironed out. Still, if you're in the neighborhood and crave an authentic and superior Thai meal, this should be at the top of your list. And if they can improve their dining room, they may well become a destination.

Tongue Thai'd is open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

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