Thai me up, Thai me down

Tong's Thai Northern Curry, pork with red onion and "no coconut milk." (Photos by Laura McKenzie)

If it were ever possible to recommend a restaurant on the basis of a single dish, the dish would be the enigmatically described Northern Curry and the place would be Tong's Thai. The menu makes it clear that no coconut milk is used in the curry, but when asked what the dish did contain, our waitress said "no coconut milk." It took some prodding to determine what the dish is (pork with red onion) as opposed to what it's not. What it really is, of course, is yummy, an exercise in less-is-more spicing, and an ode to the virtues of a deceptively simple gravy.

Describing the spicy gravy, with its overtones of citrus and cardamom, is easier than pinning down the feel of Tong's ever-evolving ambience. There's new signage, the palm trees in front have become prodigious, patches of shiny corrugated metal and bright color have appeared on the interior, and the floor has been stripped down to the original terrazzo left over from the building's days as the Bun and Barrel Terrace (locals of a certain age still fondly remember the Terrace Burger). Varnished stone walls, a few Thai posters, the requisite portrait of the King and Queen, a bar dispensing frozen drinks: It's all a pleasant hodge-podge, but not one that suggests rigorously authentic cuisine. (Neither does the new logo, clearly inspired by the ubiquitous Southwest flute player Kokopelli). The slick, spiral-bound menu with its glossy photos of food is corporate to the max. Don't ponder, just order.

Coconut ice cream with chopped nuts

Be sure one of the items you order is the Tom Kha Gai, the other lone dish that could inspire a restaurant recommendation. This soup with chicken, coconut milk, lemon grass, kaffir lime, and straw mushrooms is standard on Thai menus about town, but Tong's version is especially intense. Maybe it was the flaming hot pot service or the several pieces of lemon grass "straw" I was obliged to extract, but Tong's Tom is now the gold standard. We were less impressed by the visually spectacular white spring rolls: Huge, handsome, and flaunting shrimp beneath translucent wrappers like so many veiled jewels, the rolls were nonetheless bland, consisting mostly of vermicelli and requiring heavy slatherings of the oily peanut sauce for flavor.

I think of Ban Xeo (which the menu calls a "Thai crepe") as Vietnamese, but I'd give this rendition high marks for both size and flavor. True, there were lots of bean sprouts, and the shrimp might not have been as large as the menu suggested, but the chicken was plentiful enough, and the overall flavor worked. I recommend experimenting with the table sauces (unexpectedly, the lighter one is the more authoritative of the two) in lieu of the sweet, peanut-flaked garlic sauce. Although this dish is listed as an appetizer, three of us couldn't finish it, so it could easily be considered a hearty entrée.

   Tong's Thai

1146 Austin Highway
11am-9pm Mon-Thu,
11am-10pm Fri-Sat,
noon-8 Sun
Price Range: $8.50-15.99
Major credit cards
Restrooms not wheelchair accessible

The most elaborate and expensive entrée sampled was the seafood combination, a catch-all stir fry of scallops, shrimp, mussels, squid, and vegetables such as water chestnuts and snow peas, all served atop a deep-fried flounder fillet. Had it been spicy, as advertised, I might have been more impressed, but as it was the combination didn't transcend the sum of its parts, as good as they all were. More interesting ethnically was the Basil Bowl, selected from the noodles section. We ordered the chicken version, and there was plenty of meat to balance the broad rice noodles and fresh Thai basil, all bathed in a spicy gravy. Slot that in as the No. 3 favorite.

Tong's also claims a certain local fame for its early espousal of the bubble drinks that have gained popularity all over town. Maybe one of the 21 available flavors is actually palatable, but as open as I usually am to new tastes, I'm going to go with "weird" on this one, at least in the lychee rendition: It tasted of rose water, the textures were bizarre, and the fat straw was vaguely sinister. Stick to the standard desserts, such as the icy but very good coconut ice cream. Three of us barely managed to finish off a generous serving topped with the traditional chopped peanuts. Yup, ordered too much. Experience suggests that the feeling of truly uncomfortable fullness is fleeting, however.

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