Wednesday, February 9, 2000

Thai your luck

Posted By on Wed, Feb 9, 2000 at 12:00 AM

Cook Som Jai Lee serves Pad Thai with chicken, beef, shrimp, mushrooms, tomatoes, tofu, eggs, peantus and bean sprouts.
  • Cook Som Jai Lee serves Pad Thai with chicken, beef, shrimp, mushrooms, tomatoes, tofu, eggs, peantus and bean sprouts.

This review is from when the restaurant was under previous ownership.

I eat out a lot (surprise!), and bring home lots of laden Styrofoam boxes, which I faithfully recycle. Eating at home can produce some strange tablefellows, as we pool the last few days’ doggie bags to make dinner for three.

Recently I had the pleasure of eating a Thai chicken-coconut milk dish (gang mus su mun) and chicken paprikash (Hungarian) at the same meal – and they looked quite similar with their cheerful creamy-golden sauces flecked with red. They didn’t taste at all the same, of course, and I mention this only to point out that I’m a lucky gal.

Thai House Express in Royal Oak is an offshoot of the original Thai House on Gratiot in Roseville. A yellowing, laudatory Metro Times review of that forerunner hangs on the wall – anyone remember back to Mel Small’s days?

Express’ version of gang mus su mun, with sizable pieces of chicken, is excellent; chicken and coconut are flavors that go well together, and the sweetness of coconut is a good match for the hotness of the curry. Thai cook Samart Srijumnong says of his pad Thai recipe: "The right taste should be a combination of saltiness, sweetness and hotness," and the same can be said for many Thai dishes.

Unfortunately, Thai House Express does not serve tom kha gai soup, another coconut milk and chicken combo, made with chilies, lime juice, Thai ginger, lemon grass and scallions. Their only soup, tom yum, uses virtually the same ingredients, but without the coconut milk, so it’s sour rather than sweet. (And considerately labeled "only item on menu with a little MSG." The restaurant is otherwise proudly MSG-free, with a slash-symbol-MSG sign on the window next to a ‘70s-style happy face.)

In general, the management encourages substitutions; the menu says "any dish can be vegetarian, "spice or no spice," and "substitute or delete items," even giving an example of how to convert a chicken dish into a vegetarian one.

The six hotness ratings – often a source of chagrin to those timid souls who seek true blandness – are also dead accurate, ranging from "light mild" through "mild plus" to "hot-super hot."

Thai cuisine is a blend of Indian, Chinese and Malaysian influences, and I personally lean toward the Indian side. Too often, I find, the more Chineselike dishes are not done with a light enough touch.

Express’ pad prik chicken, for example, with pea pods, baby corn and water chestnuts, uses a pretty uninspired brown sauce.

The egg roll, on the other hand, is pretty good – not greasy – and pad Thai (a noodle dish) is at least average. A squirt of fresh lime juice makes a big difference here.

Kra tiem beef, with garlic and scallions, is smoky and heavy on the beef. Satay, Westerners’ favorite appetizer (chicken tenders on a stick), was disappointing the one night we tried it – dark brown and overdone, with an uninspired peanut sauce.

Although the owners have taken pains with the decor – in late January, a rotating miniature Christmas tree, lots of bright red cupid cut-outs and a picture of Thai King Bhumibol – bear in mind that Thai House Express is basically a carryout joint. If you choose to dine in, you order at the counter and use plastic silverware and Styrofoam dishes.

Bear also in mind that portions are enormous. My pad Thai lasted for two dinners and two lunches. Which goes to show once again that I’m a lucky gal.

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