Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Southside wake-up call

Chaba Thai sets off  the right alarms

Posted on Wed, Oct 1, 2008 at 4:00 AM

Release Date: 2008-10-01

Take care, y’all; the sleeping giant is about to awake, and the South Side will never be the same again.

Of course that’s been said of the South Side for years: the Toyota plant (never mind that trucks are tanking), the A&M campus, and most recently the hospital center at Brooks City Base, have all been touted as catalysts of cataclysmic change and exploited as the occasion of euphoric statements on the part of public personages. If side-to-side and back-to-back shopping centers are our barometer of change, then it has already come to the S.E./S.W. Military axis. But I would like to propose another bellwether: decent restaurants. This is a commodity in painfully short supply in the spread of fast and half-fast food chains that is especially insidious along Military.

Yet amidst the dross, there may be silver in the form of a red and black restaurant with stylish furnishings, an ambitious Thai menu, and a small but courteous staff. May it survive against all apparent odds. Chaba is buried within City Base Landing at S.E. Military and Goliad Road. You can get house paint, dress fabric, religious articles, and half-caf, caramel macchiato coffee with Sumatra-meets-Seattle parentage here, but who would have imagined yum plah meuk, the Thai salad of calamari mixed with onions, lime juice, and a serious shot of spicy dressing?

Summer rolls aren’t exactly common currency either, and we began with this Thai classic served with a creamy peanut sauce hinting at coconut. The uncooked, translucent rolls were served with some flair, and all the advertised ingredients, including shrimp, were fresh and upfront. A little fresh mint would have enlivened the package, but the dipping sauce did go a long way toward boosting the overall flavor. An order of One Sun beef, a rendition of Thai beef jerky, was typically chewy but flavor-packed. A Tabasco-like sauce further emphasized the tough-guy image.

Our yum woon sen was a paragon of type, and it could hardly be termed too scary or exotic. Consisting of cool glass noodles mixed with finely cubed chicken, shrimp, red onions, shredded tree ears, and a spice mixture mitigated by lime juice, this classic salad displayed tip-of-the-tongue heat followed by layers of hot-sour flavor. There was more chicken than is often the case with this dish, too, and we suggest wrapping at least a few bites into the otherwise decorative romaine leaves for yet another level of appreciation.

The salad, as all of the entrées, had been pegged at Chaba’s medium heat level, and though stormtrooper types might feel the urge to up the ante, medium seemed fine to us, with one possible exception. The green curry we ordered with chicken (beef, tofu, and shrimp are the other options) was so super-creamy and plush with coconut milk that a little more heat wouldn’t have hurt. Though I found the incorporated peas and cubed carrots a little suspiciously food-service, the rest of the dish was sensational, with fistfuls of fragrant Thai basil playing beautifully against the curry’s shy sweetness.

From the Chaba Specialties list we ordered haw moak, a clay-pot production that is both dramatic and practical: The pot is handsome, and it keeps the food hot. Full of shrimp, sliced calamari, and green-lip mussels in the shell, this red curry seems almost gravy-like, and it turns out that it is thickened with flour. It’s a rich gravy, however, that cries out to be stirred frequently as both its heat and a trove of sliced cabbage reside on the bottom of the pot.

Far less secretive is the pad eggplant, also from the specialties section. Stirfried eggplant, onion, and cinnamon-scented basil are the main ingredients in this, the spiciest of the dishes we tried. You’ll want to get more rice, however, as this sauce is made for sopping, and no shred or morsel of eggplant or onion should be left behind.

And then settle down for a simple dessert or two. The fresh mango or peanut-topped coconut ice cream served over sticky rice are standard stuff at Thai restaurants, but they’re standard for a reason: They’re just what the palate needs after riding the cuisine’s roller coaster of sweet-hot, cool-fragrant flavors. And though he doubtless doesn’t realize it, this is exactly what the sleeping giant needs to truly be roused from his lethargy.

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