Many diners think of cuisines of any given country as being monolithic. Italy equals pasta and pizza, France means fancy sauces and foie gras, and Mexico ... well, don't get me started.
Which explains why some foreign governments have even picked up on the branding advantages to be had by peddling certain emblematic dishes. Take pad Thai, for example.
But even a relatively small country such as Thailand is diverse enough to spawn distinctive regional variations. Northern Thailand, with its proximity to Laos, Burma and China, is influenced by both those neighbors and the region's cooler climate. The coastal South, with Malaysia and Java close at hand, leans hotter in both senses.
In San Antonio, for a taste of that country's searing South, we need go no further than North Side eatery Thai Buri. Its operators are obsessed with chili and levels of spiciness.
Nowhere on the menu — on which unavailable items are inventively redacted with decorated band-aids — is this affinity for heat more apparent that in a dish called kua kling, billed as a "dried" curry. And dry it is. The unadorned platter of coarsely ground pork is nevertheless redolent of lime leaf, lemon grass, shrimp paste and, of course, chilies.
After a lengthy negotiation with the server, I'm still not sure whether I got the medium-plus or hot version, but the resultant spice level left just enough room for lubricating the dish with generous splashes of the house fish sauce amplified with lime, salt and more chili. Not a morsel of the flavor-infused pork remained by meal's end.
You don't need to leap straight into the inferno, however. Pyramid spring rolls are likely one of the least challenging items on the menu, but the delicate and beautifully fried triangles — their filling based on potato and starchy taro root — were a perfect foil for any of the sauces then on the table.
Soft shell crabs, emblematic of the South's coastal environment, were also beautifully fried and encased in a thin batter coating. However, the crunchy shell didn't quite compensate for an almost-mushy interior and a green chili sauce that was pleasant but lacked the expected punch.
Soups such as the justly famed tom yum are almost as ubiquitous on Thai menus as pad Thai — and, yes, Thai Buri does offer both. Dipping into a Southern-style bowl is highly recommended. The restaurant's Thai chicken turmeric with slices of the bird adrift in a clear broth was delicious but not for reasons of an elevated heat level. This is a soup that conquers through the subtlety of its combination of flavors: thinly sliced turmeric, lemongrass, scallion, cilantro and onion. Surely, it's also good for what ails you.
I'm a sucker for som tum, a crunchy salad of green papaya, and Thai Buri's is one of the best — embellished with just enough tiny dried shrimp to make you take notice, further studded with chilies and then cooled with multi-color grape tomatoes. It's a classic for a reason. You'll have to negotiate heat level on this one as well. Just don't wimp out and choose medium.
Duck may be more common, and Chinese-influenced, in Northern Thailand than the South, but in any case, I was hoping for a regional take with the Thai Buri duck. The spin, such as it was, was more of a wobble. The boned half bird was beautifully roasted, but the soupy "homemade savory red sauce" it was served in, along with handsomely cut carrots and potatoes, did it no special favors.
Thai Buri's interior design seems more like that of an upscale ice cream parlor than any Thai restaurant most of us have been to. So much for both decorative and culinary stereotypes. Whatever the inspiration, it's a perfect environment to sample the house ice creams. Coconut is an obvious choice as Southern Thailand is its natural home. I nevertheless picked the Thai tea version. In sync with the setting, it was served in a tall, soda-shop glass with a dab of whipped cream and chocolate sprinkles.
To be honest, my taste buds didn't immediately signal Thai, either North or South. But they did react with pleasure at the haunting, almost-floral flavor and the creamy-chalky texture. Pleasure knows no regional boundaries — but you already knew that.
1160 N. Loop 1604 West #110 | (210) 476-5072 | thaiburisa.com | Hours: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-9 p.m. Tuesday to Friday; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturday; 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday
The skinny: Thai Buri's menu offers the expected pad Thai and tom yum, but the restaurant's Southern Thai dishes, with an emphasis on chilies and seafood, are well worth exploring. Spiciness is personified by the pork dry curry that is kua kling, seafood dishes such as Buri pompano with a pineapple sauce. More subtle but equally appealing are pyramid spring rolls with potato and taro and Thai chicken turmeric soup. Cap it all off with Thai tea ice cream.