A splash in the river

Thai Kitchen brightens downtown's offerings

Release Date: 2003-08-07

Sam Suwanasung was one of the city's first apostles of Thai cuisine, and he has hung out for so long in a undistinguished strip center off San Pedro that we tend to forget about him. Now, in the equivalent of a culinary midlife crisis, Sam has reinvented himself by pulling up stakes and moving downtown to new digs in the Riverwalk Plaza Hotel across from the Bexar County Courthouse. The move was something of a stealth operation, with the old occupant out and the new one in, all very hush-hush, in the matter of a few days. Such was the stealth, in fact, that few know he is there yet. That is bound to change. The pretty good buffet for $7.99 will draw some for lunch to be sure; the courthouse crowd lost no time in figuring that out. And the special plates are generous to a fault - another plus. But lunch specials are rarely any Asian restaurant's best food forward, and Thai Kitchen doesn't radically alter that equation. The starter soup, however, is a stunner - if you select the tom yum gai. Lemongrass, chicken, Thai basil: The flavors aren't really subtle, but they are intense - intensely appealing - and the perfect palate perker. The soup was so successful, in fact, that the #5 beef stir-fried with garlic, black pepper, onions, and mushrooms fell flat in comparison; it lacked oomph, and the beef itself was tough. Chicken with sweet Thai basil, on the other hand, was tender and appropriately spicy with basil and garlic. The spring rolls that come with lunch are slender and greasy, but good; the Rangoon, (that silly fried wonton with cream cheese that's a fixture on lunch plates all over the city), can be ignored, but the fried rice is truly strange: It almost seems cracked, and it's unusually golden.

We're batting about .500 so far. Not bad for a place open such a short time.

Normally, of course, we would wait longer for a restaurant to get its act together, but given Sam's experience and track record, that seems unnecessary. Although the ghost of the previous tenant, Cascades, still lingered, the space seemed ready to go, with Thai travel posters and portraits of the king and queen properly hung, and Asian pots decorating ledges as though they had always been there. The test would be dinner, and a gang of four - all admittedly eager to have the place succeed in the name of downtown variety - was recruited for the occasion. We had plenty of time to contemplate our reactions, for although the food met expectations, service was almost painfully slow - and this is probably the main problem with coming down on Sam so soon. As intriguing as it was (and you should definitely order it), a glass of young coconut juice with still-adolescent coconut meat can only hold interest for so long.

A number of menu items weren't available, it might also be noted, but that is a problem that should sort itself out as soon as a reliable pace is achieved. What's less easy to explain is a change in traditional technique for a dish as common - in Thai terms - as sa-te. Our chicken version came skewered and deep-fried, not grilled as is the usual case. The thick peanut sauce still worked, and the chunky cucumber in spiced vinegar was fine, but it appears we've become set in our ways: Grilled is better. No complaints over the fresh and freshly assembled vegetarian spring rolls. Like a salad in a rice paper wrapper, they were virtue personified - and tasty, too.

Finely chopped or coarsely ground, the larb gai (chicken) gets to you with its combination of fish sauce, lime, cilantro, and (very little) roasted ground rice (it's not really missed). The balance seems right here, and this was the first plate to disappear, especially after we added ground peanuts and a little spiked fish sauce from the condiment tray. Seafood curry, presented in the foil package in which it is steamed, ran a close second. This is an old-time favorite from the original Thai Kitchen (family members have taken it over, by the way), and if it looked more like a yellow curry than red, the total package was seductive with its slight sweetness, good chile heat, and pleasantly contrasting textures. But at $13.95 we might want to see a little more seafood, no matter how good the taste.

The same might be said for pad lard nar, better known as #25. OK, it's rice noodles stir-fried in brown sauce with impeccably crisp snow peas, equally crisp broccoli, and very little of our chosen squid. (Beef, pork, chicken, and shrimp are the other options.) With the exception of pad Thai, it's always a calculated risk in certain circles to order a Thai dish that isn't starred for spicy, and #25 was no exception. But sufficient seafood would have helped turn the tide. We ladled on lots of fish sauce, an improvement, but that didn't stop occasional grumbling.

A starred dish that sneaks up on you, however, is one labeled simply hot pepper dish - a natural for culinary masochists. Serious slices of jalapeño spangle this plate with other, less obvious chiles providing backup heat. Tomato, garlic, and onions are the other automatic ingredients, and again there is a choice of meats. Beef wa, a fajita-like cut, and much better than the lunch special that now seemed so far away.

Desserts aren't an issue in many Asian restaurants, but at a Thai place, coconut ice cream and sticky rice are eagerly awaited, either together or separate. As usual, the ice cream was great, and the pairing with warm, sticky rice on the bottom of the dish was sensational. Sticky rice with fresh mango, another classic combination, was no slouch, either. But the surprise was a Thai rendition of comfort food, the tapioca pudding with young coconut meat and juice: our initial drink come full circle but with perfect pearls of pudding to give it a foundation. In its own way, it sneaks up on you just like the hot pepper dish. We suspect Sam will sneak up on downtown in time. •