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Thai Emerald Restaurant fills a void



When Derek Lertserikul, his family and his partners looked around to open a Thai eatery in the Charlotte area, they realized Charlotte "was saturated." So they went north to Huntersville, and last March they opened the 76-seat Thai Emerald Restaurant.

A walkway divides the dining room, filled with polished chairs and booths, and shields it from the wintry blasts that often come with opening a door of a strip shopping center space. Walls of mint green, not the rich tones of emerald, brighten the walls. A small bar at the end of the walkway opens into the dining room. The neighborhood crowd is here -- and, in this case, a large number of them are costumed Renaissance Festival participants. I am not alone in my amusement of seeing spring rolls replace gargantuan smoked turkey legs at tables exhibiting the boisterous frivolity of a medieval dining hall.

For the 21st century clad diners, the menu offers expansive English descriptions. Thai Emerald is intent on achieving a balance between its location in a suburban strip center and its Thai identity. Items are numbered and are referred to by number in the server discourse. Dishes include those better-known Thai dishes typically found around this region: curries and stir fries, noodles and soups, whole fish and salads. Lertserikul noted that they do not serve Som Tam, the famous very hot papaya salad, since its initial debut proved unpopular. And because not all essential Thai herbs and vegetables are readily available year round, some may be substituted or omitted in this kitchen.

Balance of flavors and aromatic properties are key characteristics of this cuisine, while the culinary heritage of Thailand suggests a global influence. Early trade ties with France brought the innovative use of coconut milk in curries and Portuguese traders inspired desserts -- like sangkaya, sticky rice with egg custard. Chinese immigrants brought stir fries. The heart of Thai food is vegetarian and many of the dishes here are offered with this option. At the helm of Thai Emerald's kitchen is Lertserikul's father Silapachai who is from an island in southern Thailand.

At 57 offerings, the menu is ambitious, but needs editing. Some dishes seem remarkably the same and the singular jalapeno denoting heat indicates the lack of the heat normally achieved at Thai restaurants. To counter this, I requested dishes to be "full flavored" and seasoned as "true Thai." The food, however, arrived without spunk. We then requested the condiment tray.

Two Mee Krob appetizers are offered. The unsweetened one, my preference, needed to be enlivened by a healthy dash of chili sauce. The other is crispy noodles mixed with a sweet syrup, the classic street vendor Mee Krob rendition.

The best know Thai dish is Pad Thai. In Thailand, Pad Thai, the fusion of hot, sweet, sour and salty, is served at inexpensive eateries, not "fine" restaurants, just as spaghetti and meatballs is not found in "fine" Italian restaurants. One San Francisco Thai restaurateur told me once how amused she was that American restaurant critics rate Thai restaurants by this dish, especially since this dish only achieved popularity in Thailand after World War II when the Thai government started rice noodle production on a large scale, in part to put the country back to work. At Thai Emerald this bellwether dish, stylishly plated, knits its own tangle of flavors, heightened with a spritz of lime and the condiment tray.

A duck dish is served without the marvelously torrid Thai-curry broth, yet the meat was succulent with floats of baby corn, straw mushrooms, basil leaves, carrots, and peas. The Tom Yum soup, perfect in colder weather, offered that bewitching balance of veiled sweetness. No less vigorous are the chicken and water chestnut dumpling appetizer, Ka Nom Jeeb, in translucent rice wraps.

Entrées at Thai Emerald range from $10.75 for vegetarian Thai noodles to $16.95 for seafood combination hot pot with glass noodles and vegetables. Lunch specials are from $6.95 to $9.95. Lertserikul says that lunch can be produced in ten minutes, for those "office people with short lunch breaks," while dinner is served at "a slower pace."

Heat-searing Thai cuisine is one of the most popular nationally. Thai Emerald, however, is taking the safer course and playing its more restrained dishes by the numbers.

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