Years ago, I surrendered to the total sensory assault of Thai food. Colorful presentations and a tapestry of textures and flavors -- basil, kiffir lime leaves, ginger, chilies, coconut milk, cilantro and lemon grass -- please the eye, nose and palate, and bring me back time and again.
Thai cuisine reflects Thailand's unique political history in Southeast Asia: Thailand is the only country in the region never colonized by Europeans. Instead, this Asian cuisine has absorbed various aspects of its neighbors' cuisines to produce a singular style. Dishes rely on the eye and palate of the cook rather than a step-by-step recipe. Many Charlotteans have come to rely on Chef Tony Kwok's first-rate palate.
I first tasted Kwok's Thai dishes when he was chef at Thai Taste on East Boulevard in the early 1990s. Later, I followed him to his first restaurant, The King and I on Central Avenue, where he and his wife, Phim, served marvelous food for years. Although their restaurant was located in my favorite eating locale of Charlotte -- the 4800 block of Central -- I was concerned for the Kwoks and the other purveyors of Asian food in the area as it transitioned into a primarily Latino neighborhood. Several Vietnamese restaurants have managed to survive, but one of Charlotte's oldest, Huong Viet, did not. That space is now Pupusa Heat, a Salvadoran restaurant.
About 18 months ago, when picking up a to-go order, I talked to Phim about moving their restaurant. From across the room, one of her steady customers, Scott, came up and vigorously agreed, saying in fact that he and others had been encouraging her to move for some time. Late this fall, The King and I closed and a Latino bakery opened in its former space.
In January, the Kwoks opened Thai Thai, a small takeout spot in the Dilworth Garden Shopping center. For Tony Kwok, this move brings him full circle: Once again, he is cooking on East Boulevard.
Maneki Nekos, Japanese good luck cat figurines given to the Kwoks by family, friends and customers, adorn most of Thai Thai's countertops. The two-table entry's ambience is elegant: Walls are sponge-painted in rich red hues, while a large Thai wood carving embellishes another wall. Becoming a friend of the perpetually smiling Phim is easy. She possesses the knack for remembering her customers and their food preferences: "Your son likes only a little spice, yes?"
This sense of warm communion and the carefully calibrated seasoning of its food ensures a good experience at Thai Thai. The Mee Krob lettuce wraps were delicately spiced, begging to be punched up with the accompanying hot sauce. The stellar Ka Nom Jeb (minced shrimp and chicken dumplings) may be prepared steamed or fried -- however, the steamed version is extraordinarily fresh tasting. But pigging out on starters will not leave room for what follows.
The entrées? Again, all singing, all dancing. The flavors in the Pad Thai, everyone's bellwether and Thailand's most popular noodle dish, nearly jumped from the plate. The stir-fried noodles' partners -- shrimp, eggs, tofu, bean sprouts and peanuts -- are not over-chopped or overused. Consequently, there is none of the mushiness that can mar this dish.
However, the stir-fry is easily out-classed by its menu-mates. The Goong Chu Chee, one of the Kwoks' specialties, offers an abundance of perfectly fried medium shrimp marooned on a lush jasmine rice island scattered with basil leaves, baby corn and broccoli. The Gaeng Panang curry had large diver-sized scallops in a spicy coconut cream sauce made fragrant with basil leaves and lemon grass.
For those who like it hot, degrees of spiciness are noted throughout the menu, and the dishes can be prepared according to taste. But even the heat in the truly hot dishes seems to meld and diminish with a coconut cream sauce and a cold beer.
It's not difficult to eat inexpensively here, and portion sizes are large. Starters are about $5-$6, soups $4 and entrées range from $9 to $14, depending on the choice of meat or seafood. Many, if not most, dishes may be prepared as vegetarian.
Having watched the Kwoks struggle in recent years in a location where most of its customers came from outside their neighborhood, I can only hope that Thai Thai and Kwok's memorable dishes will quickly find a home in Dilworth.
On January 9, 2006, Gene Carter, founder of the Old Hickory House on North Tryon Street and frequent recipient of CL's Best Barbecue award, died of leukemia. Carter used the Carter Black family recipes that I had grown to love as a child at the Black's Buckhead location of Atlanta's Old Hickory House. Over the years, Carter and I had many discussions about the nuances of Alabama and Georgia barbecue sauces. The Carter family will continue operating the restaurant, which recently began accepting credit cards.
Closed is chef-owner Chris Zion's Meeting House on Providence Road in Myers Park. In that location soon will be Big Ben's Pub, reported to be "authentically British." The Union Jacks have already arrived.
Also closed are the Fish Farm on 1200 Sam Newell Road in Matthews, one of the area's oldest fish camps, and El Loco Pollo, a fast food Peruvian spot on Eastway.
Have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, has closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? Note: We need notice of events at least 12 days in advance. Fax information to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136. To contact Tricia via e-mail: [email protected].