A young family walks in and has no problem ordering from the menu after situating their two squirmy children beside them. Next, a woman and her son arrive. The boy loudly proclaims his dismay that his mother embarrassed him by asking the server questions about the menu. His mother glances at him above her reading glasses and asks how she would learn if she did not ask questions. Her son quipped, "We shouldn't go anywhere strange again."
But at this point, Thai food is anything but strange. In fact, Pad Thai is joining the ranks of spaghetti as an ethnic food anyone would like. And why not? Pasta, the primary ingredient of Pad Thai, appeals to most everyone. The other aspects of Thai foods are the enticing and fragrant combinations of kaffir lime leaves, ginger, coriander, (holy) basil, lemongrass, mint, fresh lime, coconut milk, chilies and galanga. Galanga is a root, sometimes called Siamese ginger, which smells like pine needles and tastes like a mild ginger. Galanga is the Kha you see on Thai menus.
Ironically, this outreach of Thai cuisine into Matthews is by one of Charlotte's ethnic cuisine pioneers. Owner Sak Kongruengkit opened the first Thai Taste on Monroe Road in 1988 and the folks in Matthews have been waiting for this shop to open. Would-be diners have been peeking into the windows beneath the "Opening Soon" banner for months.
Golf Kongruengkit, son of the owner and a graduate of UNC-Charlotte, is the General Manager of the Matthews location. He noted, "We were surprised at how many people came during our opening weeks. Some have been waiting for us to open, and some customers even remember our old space on Monroe Road."
Thai Taste's two dining rooms, separated by the center hostess station, seat a total of 74 and are soothingly warm with orange walls. Demure Asian artifacts and large commissioned paintings from a Bangkok artist further the intimacy of this small yet luminous and airy space. The walls of windows in both pods allow the diners to view a soon-to-open patio.
In the kitchen is Porntarn Kongcharoen, a native of Bangkok and sister-in-law to the owner. She came to Charlotte via LA where, according to her nephew, she learned the style of Thai that appeals to Californians. Kongcharoen trained at the East Boulevard Taste for three months to ensure the franchise's consistency.
But as in all ethnic restaurants, there are differences. For example, Mee Krob at Thai Taste is quite different from the more pungent meaty mix found at some Thai restaurants. Here, the mix is a blend of crispy noodles, tofu and chicken in a sweetened fruity sauce. If you prefer the piquant Mee Krob, as I do, you'll find this appetizer too sweet.
However, the management's intent at Thai Taste is to please the customer and to develop a style that their American customer base wants and likes. Kongruengkit stated, "If the dish is too dry or too sweet, we will adjust it to our customers' taste." He'll also then make that recipe for the dish a standard on the menu. He continued, "We use the same recipes as East Boulevard, but we have already noticed that our customers like foods hotter here in Matthews."
But being hot is all relative. My server suggested, rather emphatically, that a five star Tom Yum soup would be "too hot for you." I finally talked her into allowing me to have four stars, although I'm not sure others diners would be as persistent. To season the dishes, Kongcharoen uses ground chile peppers. Said Kongruengkit, "If we were to use the fresh chilies, it would be too hot for most American tastes. On a five point scale, the fresh chile would be a 20. But we do have some customers who request the fresh peppers and our kitchen staff makes their meals with fresh peppers grown in Florida which are a little bigger but very similar to Thai chilies."
Not everything on the menu is hot and highly seasoned. The menu, with lengthy English descriptions, is filled with the usual suspects of Thai cuisine: a potent selection of curries, steamed pots, duck dishes, salads, soups, stir fry and noodle dishes. They're only missing a headliner or two, such as the papaya salad.
The starters are generous in portion. A half dozen steamed dumplings, while luscious, are suitably restrained. This kitchen's rendition of chicken and shrimp Pad Thai turned out to have melded, rather than distinct flavors. The best was the wonderfully aromatic crispy duck panang curry, a real stunner, made in exact compliance with my heat specifications. Panang, a treat from northern Thailand, is not a fiery curry meant to burn off all the sensory preceptors of the tongue. So you can eat this curry and drink wine, too. Kongruengkit noted that he's looking to implement a better wine program at this location since the folks in Matthews "really like wine."
It's not difficult to eat inexpensively at Thai Taste, since dishes are served family style and portions are large. Service is exceptional, but you will have to let your server know exactly how "authentic" you want your dishes prepared.
I marvel at the chutzpah and talent restaurateurs need to prosper. It seems as if anyone who ever waited on tables or stir fried Pud Puk wants to open a restaurant. Many Thai restaurants have opened, some have closed. Many of these owners were former Thai Taste employees. For the Kongruengkit family, this is their sixth restaurant opening, and with one restaurant that has been open for 17 years, they obviously know what Charlotteans want.
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