By Craig Sailor
The News Tribune
One can be forgiven for strip mall overload. There's only so many nail salons, tanning joints and Teriyaki #1's a person can take before the eyes glaze over. And yet to dismiss the ubiquitous Asian restaurant simply because of its location would be a disservice to some potentially good eating.
Chili Thai is a three-restaurant chain (University Place, Puyallup and Lacey) that doesn't stray far from the tried and true Thai-American strip mall formula. But it's in the preparation and presentation of the food that gives these restaurants a little edge over their competitors. Quality ingredients – well prepared and presented on elaborate dishes, often with fresh orchids – are the hallmark of this eatery.
The setting: The University Place Chili Thai location tries for a somewhat upscale ambience with dark walls and booths but stumbles with mismatched furniture. A loud (visually and audibly) refrigerator emblazoned with Coke logos in the middle of the dining room gives the eatery a frat house feel.
Appetizers: We started with the reliable standby of chicken satay ($7.95/top photo) and were rewarded with four generously sized chicken skewers. Accompanied by peanut sauce, a pickled carrot-cucumber-onion salad, toast points and a mound of shredded carrots, the coconut milk marinated chicken had satisfyingly dark grill marks on it. Neither the sauce or seasoning took away from the savory pleasure of the chicken.
Miang Kum ($6.95) is an appetizer that is increasingly appearing on the menus of American Thai restaurants. And for good reason. The fun-to-assemble dish came with a plate of spinach leaves while another plate held small piles of fresh lime, peanuts, dried shrimp, onions, ginger and toasted coconut surrounding a bowl of sweet sauce. Oddly for an eatery that calls itself Chili Thai, the one ingredient Miang Kum fans will find missing (other than the traditional betel leaves) are chilies. But no matter, we were soon assembling our own little green tacos, with each diner adjusting the ingredients to his liking. This is a dish for lovers of strong flavors.
Entrees: Of the three dishes we tried, the No. 1 hit was the Massaman curry ($8.95) – a rich and satisfying dish that could almost be called All-American with its use of potatoes and peanuts. The brown curry isn't heavy but extremely flavorful without being too salty. We chose the chicken option from a list that included tofu, beef, pork (all $8.95) or prawns ($10.95).
Hot Basil Beef ($8.95) came in a savory, but oversalted, dark sauce, and the dish had a nice balance between its beefy strips, vegetables and fresh basil. The onions, bell peppers and mushrooms were fresh and vivid in the dish.
We couldn't eat at a Thai restaurant without trying that country's national dish of stir-fried noodles: Pad Thai. We ordered the prawn version ($10.95) and found it satisfying: not greasy, not clumpy, but not a standout either. It was more about the noodles that it was shrimp or its meager amount of green onions and egg. In addition to prawns there are tofu, beef, pork and chicken options ($8.95) and a seafood combo ($12.95).
Chili Thai does something few Asian restaurants do: offer brown and as well as white steamed rice with meals. Here's hoping this trend catches on.
Dessert: We ordered mango slices (photo above) over coconut rice ($4.95) off the specials menu. The slightly tart mango rested on the rich, coconut-soaked warm rice making for a tropical slice of heaven. Toasted sesame seeds brought it to another level. "This is genius," one of my dining companions remarked – a just minted fan of the dish. It was a nice reminder that dessert doesn't always have to be a crème brulee or a slice of something chocolate.
Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541
Where: 7406 27th St. W., University Place
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday; Noon-9 p.m. Sunday.
Contact: 253-564-9099; www.chilithai.com
Take out: yes
Major cards: yes
Other locations (hours are same for all)
Puyallup: 3712 9th Street SW, 253-864-7005
Lacey: 5823 Lacey Blvd. SE, 360-438-8823