Thai Score

Peasant dishes taste like a million bucks at Thai Country Cafè

Jan 2, 2002 at 4:00 am
How many times have you wished you had the recipe for the braided Christmas bread your Ukrainian grandmother used to bake or wondered what the secret spice was in your uncle's Italian sausage? The Thai people have a lovely custom to ensure that special family recipes will be preserved. Before a person dies, he or she gathers cherished recipes into a handsome hand-lettered booklet, which is given to grieving friends and relatives at the funeral. In this way, the person is remembered every time the little book is used.

The peasant dishes at Thai Country Café are like those whose recipes have been recorded in generations of heirloom cookbooks. It is not the sophisticated food of Thailand's cities. Nor is it the cuisine of the royal court, ennobled with intricately carved vegetables and complex sauces. Instead, these rustic dishes are stir-fried, steamed or grilled and then garnished sparely. The food requires intensive preparation, but the cooking time is short once the ingredients have been peeled and pounded, seeded and chopped, toasted and ground.

The 1971 book Melting Pot, part of the classic series Time-Life Foods of the World, mentions only Chinese and Japanese food in its quaint essay on "Oriental" restaurants. Since then, entrepreneurial Asian immigrants have introduced us to the pleasures of Indian, Thai, Vietnamese and Korean cookery. (With few exceptions, Malaysian, Philippine and other Asian restaurants have set up shop only in the largest American cities.) Asian cuisine has become an integral part of America's culinary heritage. Bon Appétit magazine recently asked a group of prominent foodies to name their favorite "trend busters" -- those standbys we turn to when we're tired of puzzling over weird, fussy concoctions. Writer Jeffrey Steingarten listed spring rolls right alongside apple pie and Southern pork barbecue.

We like spring rolls as much as Mr. Steingarten does. The ones at Thai Country Café, called por pei tod, are filled with rice vermicelli, shredded carrots and cabbage. They're delightful specimens -- tightly rolled, crisp and greaseless. The restaurant's steamed roll, por pei sohd, has even cleaner flavors. To make it, a wrapper as thin and soft as a crêpe is loosely stuffed with basil, scallions, bean sprouts, tofu and rice vermicelli. The roll is finished with a syrupy-sweet sauce and a handful of ground peanuts. Satay is often eaten as a snack in Southeast Asian countries. At Thai Country Café, marinated chicken or pork is threaded onto skewers, then grilled and served with a sweet ground-peanut sauce. It's almost always on the menu at Thai restaurants, and we can't resist ordering it. But one menu item that took us by surprise was tod mun khao pote, or deep-fried corn cakes -- how did corn make it from the Americas to Thailand? We discovered that Portuguese merchants introduced corn to East Africa and Asia. The crop was cultivated along the trade routes of the Indian subcontinent, reaching China and Southeast Asia by the mid-16th century. Corn is now used in many Asian dishes, such as Indonesian corn-spinach soup and Malaysian corn jelly. Thai Country Café's tender corn patties, studded with fat yellow kernels and spiced with a generous grinding of black pepper, instantly joined spring rolls and satay as must-order appetizers.

But come to think of it, virtually every Asian cuisine has its version of spring rolls, spitted meats and the like. What distinguishes the Thai table from its Asian counterparts is the prevalence of six ingredients: cilantro, chiles, coconut, garlic, nam pla (Thai fish sauce) and citrus flavors such as lemongrass and lime juice. Asian culinary traditions do overlap considerably. The cuisine of Thailand, for example, closely resembles that of Vietnam, which bears the stamp of French colonization.

Thai food has a largely undeserved reputation for being hot. Although it's true that the tiny Thai chile is searing to Western palates, other chiles and spices used in Thai cookery are flavorful but not fiery. On Thai Country Café's menu, the items marked "spicy" are not particularly hot. Coconut milk takes the sting out of a dish called khao laad nar gang luk chin pla, fish balls in green curry paste. Now, erase every vile association that the term "fish balls" calls to mind. The light spheres in this dish have the flavor of imitation crabmeat and the springiness (but not the sliminess) of gefilte fish. They're tossed with bell peppers, snow peas and bamboo shoots. A dish called pad kee maow shieng hai, flat glass noodles with vegetables and shrimp, is also milder than the menu indicates. The transparent, irregularly shaped shards have a brownish tinge, probably from having been boiled in beef stock. The dish was prepared correctly, but we didn't care for the stretchy, gelatinous quality of the noodles, which are made from mung-bean starch.

The Thai expertise in balancing flavors is showcased in the café's soups and salads. A fine hot-and-sour chicken soup, tom yum gai, is extraordinarily fragrant and has a curiously mellow citrusy tang. The delicate caramel-colored broth contains sliced lemongrass stalks, Chinese mushrooms, chopped scallions, galangal (a gingery spice) and chunks of white-meat chicken. Som tum, a cool, crunchy salad, is composed of shaved carrots, diced tomatoes, rice vermicelli, green beans, cabbage and ground peanuts. Pepper-spiked lime juice brings the flavors into sharp relief.

The fare at Thai Country Café compares favorably with the offerings at other Thai restaurants in the area, several of which are also in the Delmar Loop. The café's menu mainly comprises rice dishes, noodle stir-fries and noodle soups -- the kind of nourishing food that sustains the hard-working farmers in Thailand's rural districts. Most items are not as vividly flavored as the intense curries and pungent marinades at The King & I, the best Thai restaurant among those we've visited in St. Louis.

Thai Country Café's atmosphere is less upscale than the ambience at restaurants such as Manee Thai and Sukho Thai. The café recently expanded into an adjacent storefront, but the old and new sides look similar. Each dining room has a couple of booths elevated on platforms in front of plate-glass windows. The walls are adorned with coolie hats, intricately woven tapestries and other artifacts. A television is mounted in the back corner of the new dining room. During one of our visits, the staff seemed to be absorbed in watching a college-basketball game on TV. We didn't mind, though. We had everything we needed and were pleased to be left alone to enjoy the meal.