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Thursday, December 18, 2003

Feel the burn

You'll need a fire extinguisher for your palate at Thai Spice, but heat has never tasted so good.

Posted on Thu, Dec 18, 2003 at 4:00 AM

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Release Date: 2003-12-18

You take your tips where you can get them in this business. In the case of Thai Spice, the lead came from my ophthalmologist, normally a measured and rational-seeming kinda guy. When we agreed on Thai Cafe as one of the city's standouts, I figured I should pay attention to his new favorite.

Fast forward three months or so. A decidedly non-measured and highly irrational group found the courage to drive to Selma and a shopping center that seems to be expanding with Big Bang velocity. When we finally found Thai Spice, sandwiched between CiCi's Pizza and Maggie Moo's Ice Cream, the collective sigh of relief was audible.

Thai Spice is owned by the hospitable couple that used to run Thai House, a previous favorite, on Rittiman, in San Antonio We sat down with heightened expectations. Little did we realize what heights we were about to experience.

Two Thai tías, recently arrived from restaurants in Bangkok, are the new driving force in the kitchen, and their influence was immediately apparent. Our first hint of what was to come was like a hit on the head with Thai Spice thom yum, a "cloudy" soup, topped with a soupçon of evaporated milk that only slightly manages to mellow the sharp, citrusy flavors (playing off neutral chunks of chicken) that brought tears of joy to several faces around the table all the while eliciting little yelps of pain via the whole Thai chile. We sighed in admiration for the "mature" galangal (more flavorful than the young variety but not meant to be eaten) and bright lemon grass (there was probably some kaffir lime leaf, too). We hardly realized that we were inhaling this elixir with the unseemly haste that would come to characterize our almost breathless dispatch of every following dish.

Next on the list were the Thai Spice wings. Fruity-hot and almost caramel-crisp, it's "stand back Buffalo" with these babies; I would pick them over any wings in the city. The mee krob, another appetizer that's often a throwaway, also stands out with its crisp and crunchy rice noodles, sweet-hot tamarind sauce, cool scallion, mellow shrimp, and crisp bean sprouts. But with the yum ped, a crispy duck salad, the combination of both familiar and exotic begins to excite the palate in ways that the scintillating soup and siren-spicy wings had only begun to suggest. The duck for this dish is first stewed with cinnamon, ginger, and star anise; it's next sliced and deep-fried until crisp - most of the fat having boiled or cooked off at this point. Finally, it's combined with ground, toasted rice (yielding a nutty, crunchy texture), red onion, lettuce, and perhaps a little vinegared fish sauce. The finished product is spectacularly.

To soothe the palate, a more challenging dish is entirely appropriate. For some, the only problem may be the assertive flavors of dried shrimp and pickled crab (still in the shell), but if they can be admitted slowly into your repertoire of acceptable tastes, the green papaya salad (som thum) can be seen for what it is: a beautifully fragrant and refreshing palate cleanser. And the crunchy, shredded green papayas happen to come from mom's garden - as does much of the basil, including the spicy, "hairy," holy variety and the more intensely anise-flavored Thai sweet basil.

The fragrant, sweet basil is especially apparent - and appreciated - in the Thai Spice mussels with slivers of both red bell pepper and jalapeño. Its licorice-like flavor enhances a spicy lime sauce and seems to marry seamlessly with the green lip mussels. You would never know they were a frozen product, and our only regret was that not enough sauce remained to pour over our individual bowls of steamed rice.

If everything to this point has seemed special, there is nevertheless a menu section labeled Specialty Items, and it should not be ignored - even if some of the dishes seem old-hat at first glance. Phat Thai is another knee-jerk item that I might have passed over if not for urging on the part of our hostess - and was she ever right. Thai Spice's Phat Thai how kai is another animal altogether. Sure, the rice-stick noodles, crisp bean sprouts, and ground peanut are there, along with chunks of chicken, and all have been seasoned with equal parts fish sauce, vinegar, and sugar. The balance is perfect. The kicker here is the sheet of egg. It's cooked in a large, thin square that's cut to serving size, then placed over the stir-fried noodle mixture and carefully tucked underneath. Slits are cut in the top and the dish is then presented as an egg-wrapped package with parts peeking out. Far from being a neutral skin, the egg actually contributes positively to the flavor profile. Phat Thai will never seem the same.

The truly adventurous are also urged to try another specialty item, the guey jubb soup with five spices, pork intestines and livers. We didn't lack resolve, only room.

For there was dessert to come. The whole, fresh "jasmine" coconut is flown in twice a week for Thai Spice; it's street food in Bangkok, where the cool concoction is seen as an antidote to the sticky-hot weather. The immature coconut is grilled for this preparation, and some of that smokiness remains in the gelatinous flesh that's scooped out, combined with agar agar and coconut water, then chilled to a kind of jelly. The mixture is then put back in the coconut for serving, and it's truly delicate and refreshing - even in Thai Spice's air-conditioned, almost-sanitized space worlds away from the teeming streets of Bangkok. Falling more into the comfort food category are the coconut-infused sweet rice topped with a coconut custard and the salim, a bowl of tapioca noodles (hand-made by being forced through a sieve) floating in sweetened and pink-tinted coconut milk. They won't knock your socks off, but you'll find something to like in both of them - including a kind of shared nostalgia for foods that seem familiar even if our cultures are entirely distinct. •

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