First came the Thai Café, about a block east of Skinker, followed soon thereafter by the Thai Country Café, roughly equidistant from Skinker to the west. A Thai gift shop now occupies a storefront in the same building as the Thai Country Café, and a little over a year ago, Thai Gai Yang brought a perpetual chicken rotisserie to a space about a block over the invisible line that separates St. Louis city from U. City in the Loop area. (That line will become even more meaningless when entrepreneur and impresario Joe Edwards realizes his latest vision of a music club near the Delmar MetroLink stop. Do you suppose the Great White Fathers of Civic Progress would ever listen to a guy with a ponytail?)
Last year, the Thai French Café became the fourth member of the Loop Thai empire, but as chronicled in this space, it was a concept that just didn't fit the neighborhood. Instead of sticking with the tried-and-true Loop tradition of interesting ethnic variation at value prices, Thai French (which was Thai only in the national background of its chef, leaning much more toward Parisian bistro for its style) went too upscale and confused its core audience.
So it was back to the drawing board, with the result being the newest incarnation, Thai Seafood Café. Like the "French" version, the name at the Thai Seafood Café is on the deceptive side, because seafood accounts for, at best, half of the menu. More important, however, is that it is true to the "Thai" part of its name, especially given the expectations of the Thai restaurants in its immediate vicinity. Prices are very reasonable, ingredients are fresh, spicing is bold and portions are large and the service reflects the reputation Thais have as incredibly gracious and welcoming.
The space is small but by no means cramped, holding perhaps 40. A shelflike mezzanine holds Thai musical instruments and other artwork, with carvings and textiles displayed elsewhere on the walls to reinforce the theme.
A main menu is divided primarily into curries, soups, noodle dishes and house specialties, with a supplemental menu of a single page of seasonal specials inserted at the beginning. It's long but manageable, and several of the preparations are available with different meat or vegetarian main ingredients.
One consistent quality we found was clean, artistic presentation, relying heavily on carrots, cucumbers and other sculptable vegetables carved into ovals, gears and other visually enticing shapes. Our first experience with this came with the tempura pla nuk appetizer ($5.95), which looked an awful lot like onion rings but were actually rings of large squid, ornamented with the cogs of vegetable as well as slices of tomato and a piquant sweet-sour sauce for dipping.
An appetizer of a much different tone was the fresh roll ($3.95), which is actually cooked but gets its name from the crisp interior ingredients of scallions, bean sprouts and cucumber, with additional flavoring from sausage and artificial crab and a base texture provided by tofu. The whole thing is served in a steam-warmed wrap somewhere between a cr ê pe and a tortilla, with an herby-sweet overtone from strong and fresh Thai basil.
Other appetizers we sampled included the mue ping ($4.95) and the spring roll ($3.95). The former is a marinated lean, flattened cut of pork served on skewers with a savory coating of soy sauce and oyster sauce flavored with garlic. The spring roll was relatively standard but obviously cooked to order, and, once again, it featured crisp interior vegetables.
There's something for virtually every taste among the entrees, but I was most taken with the tang kay fried rice ($7.95) from the summer-specials page. It showed up at the table as a molded dome, with this particular Xanadu holding an ample treasure of pleasures including shrimp, mussels and snapper, as well as squid that had been carved into pineapple shapes and cooked just right, leaving them with a pasta al dente texture but none of the gumminess that can come from overcooking or precooking and reheating. I also enjoyed the pla goong ($7.95), a dish driven by lightly cooked sliced onions flavored with lemongrass, mint and lime, with about eight medium shrimp tying it together.
The ma ma lard nar ($7.95), a chicken-and-egg-noodle dish with bamboo shoots and baby corn, announced its arrival with a fragrant burst of steam and involved an unusual kinked form of noodle that looked like it might have been inspired by Little Orphan Annie's hair. Mue mak nam pung ($7.95) was the Thai equivalent of American Southern barbecue, with thin slices of pork marinated in a honey-soy-and-garlic mixture, with a dose of pepper to balance the sweet and salt with just a touch of fire.
Thai Singha beer and other brews are available, as are iced, sweetened-milk-lightened strong coffee and tea that are just about perfect for St. Louis summers. The sole available dessert on the evenings we visited was brightly colored, sweetened and processed melonlike cubes of coconut that were exotic but not as enjoyable as some of the other Southeast Asian desserts we've run across.
Taken as a whole, however, this thoughtful repackaging of the Thai Seafood Café has resulted in a restaurant that should have a lot better legs than its predecessor. It's sufficiently distinct from the other three Thai places within a short walk, and it's returned to the basic value that makes Thai food such an inviting alternative.
THAI SEAFOOD CAFE, 608 Eastgate Ave. (U. City Loop), 862-4429. Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Mon. & Wed.-Sat.; dinner, 5-10 p.m. Sun.- Mon. & Wed.-Thu., 5-10:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat. Entrees: $6.95-$10.95.
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