At first, there was a waft of ginger and the pungent perfume of chiles, then a wash of citrusy lemongrass. Broad slices of roasted duck, with skin on, perched atop a pool of vivid orange curry laden with coconut milk, squash, pineapple, peppers and holy basil leaves.
It’s a dish — roasted duck curry — that can be tough to find in Tacoma, which is why I ordered it on a first visit to newly opened Thai Pepper True Thai Kitchen. The restaurant opened Nov. 14 on a stretch of Pacific Avenue that’s already home to a number of great eateries and bars. Its location previously held the Vietnamese restaurant Orange Door.
The restaurant’s menu held other surprises. I spotted miang kham, the build-your-own Thai appetizer for which betel or other leaves (spinach at Thai Pepper) are served with bits of lime, chile pepper, dried shrimp, peanuts and coconut ($8.95) meant to be tucked into a one-bite purse of sweet, salty, sour, spicy. I see that dish occasionally (at Chili Thai and Galanga Thai), but it’s not a menu standard.
The list of 13 chef’s favorites held more interest, from grilled lamb with panang sauce ($17.95) to a dish called “Mom’s Favorite,” stir-fried zucchini, mushrooms and green beans threaded with snappy shrimp and wide swaths of chicken breast in a thin sauce wafting with the unmistakable earthy-pungent aroma of krachai ($14.95). The finger-shaped rhizome is like a musty, milder version of ginger.
The unusual finds are interspersed among a menu full of familiar Thai territory, from tom ka soup to pad Thai. There are the usual noodle dishes, citrus-splashed salads, soups licked with heat, stir-fried dishes heavy on vegetables and the wide world of curries.
Kane Bunyaketu is the owner, along with his wife and in-laws. They’ve owned close to 20 Thai restaurants in the Puget Sound region, from Racha Thai in Queen Anne to the former King and I in Bellevue. They currently own Thai Bistro in Federal Way and Shoreline.
The restaurant intended to open in the summer, but a visa delay for business partner Khanjana Kaewprasop meant a bit of a wait (there were some construction holdups, too). Kaewprasop’s visa was approved in October.
The footprint of the restaurant has changed slightly, with seating added up front and a few more tables in the back, with booths replacing some of the tables that lined the long, narrow space.
Thai Pepper carries a more striking energy than its predecessor, from the vibrant pink floating pendant lampshades to the electric pink and orange plaid booth fabric. A mural spans the length of the exposed brick wall in the front of the space, offering a top-down view of a floating market straight out of Damnoen Saduak. A raft of long wooden boats laden with fresh produce and pots holding mysterious treasures seemingly drift across the brick. Broad windows wash the restaurant with natural light.
Here’s a closer look at the menu:
Lunch combination: A nine-item menu includes chicken cashew nut, red or yellow curry chicken, rama chicken, crispy garlic chicken, pad ka pow, vegetable stir fry. Served 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays, all are $8.95, except beef curry at $9.95 and coconut prawns at $10.95. Served with soup of the day, pad Thai, and white or brown rice or a salad.
Lunch specials: An additional 13-item menu served 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays, ranging from hot pot ginger rice ($10.95) to a combo plate with som tum, barbecue Thai chicken and sticky rice ($12.95).
Noodles and rice: Fourteen noodle dishes or noodle soups ($10.95-$13.95) with the usual selection of rad na, pad Thai, pad kee mao, pad see ew, pad woon sen, plus duck noodle or beef noodle soup and tom yum noodle soup. Eight fried rice dishes, $11.95-$16.95.
Entrees: Fourteen entrees with an emphasis on stir fried dishes ($11.95-$14.95). Pad kra pow with green beans, spicy eggplant, pad khing with ginger.
Curries: Duck curry ($17.95), crab curry ($16.95), pumpkin curry ($14.95), avocado curry ($14.95) and the usual red, green, yellow, panang, massaman, jungle ($11.95-$13.95).
Salads and soups: Usual mix of spicy salads mixed with cool, crunchy vegetables. Crying tiger with grilled salty-spicy beef offered a palate-seizing level of spice (even when ordered “medium”), but with loads of fresh basil, green leaf lettuce and cabbage ($13.95). Som tum, larb gai, yum woon sen and more ($10.95-$16.95).
Appetizers: 15 selections with the expected chicken and lamb satay ($9-$10.95), fresh or fried spring rolls ($6.95) and fried calamari ($9.95), but also the miang kham and gai hor bai toey, chicken in pandan leaf with sweet sauce ($9.95).
Spicing: A four-level scale of mild, medium, hot, very hot. Medium was quite spicy, so I’d stick to the lower end of the spectrum unless you enjoy a little pain with your panang.
Thai Pepper True Thai Kitchen
Where: 701 Pacific Ave., Tacoma; 253-503-3179.
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; noon-9 p.m. Sundays.