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Thai Pepper II

Empty room, full stomach.

I've always been a little creeped out in empty restaurants. There's that uncomfortable sense of being watched -- because there's no one else in the dining room to attract any of the staff's attention. I feel like I ought to whisper, so as not to distract the bored cooks and waiters from whatever it is they're doing to pass the time -- reorganizing the coolers, gossiping, playing high-stakes Russian roulette, what have you. And then there's that nagging feeling I sometimes get that maybe twenty minutes ago, the place was jumping, but when I pulled into the parking lot, I just missed the exit of the last ambulance...

Still, I've had some pretty good meals in empty restaurants. And last week, I had a great one at Thai Pepper II, sitting at my table against the back wall, looking out over a small dining room perfectly set for a lunch rush that was never going to materialize.

Thai Pepper is an archetypal strip-mall setup -- just ten tables and a cash register -- stuck in one of those spots that only towns like Aurora can produce, with a half-dozen storefronts offering Mexican, Thai, Persian, baked goods and chicken wings stuck between the tanning salons, hookah bars, international travel agencies and vacuum-cleaner repair shops. It's tough to find unless you know where to look (on Dartmouth between Havana and Parker), but once you find it, it's impossible to lose the memory of the food: so plain, so simple and so blissfully good.

The small menu was all classic, inexpensive Thai comfort food. I had a big plate of chicken kaeng karee -- pale yellow curry sweetened with just a touch of coconut milk and poured over tender breast meat and chunks of boiled potato -- and another of Thai red curry the color of new brick, tasting of earthy spice, distant heat and sharply verdant whole-leaf basil. The Thai coffee was thin and sweet, the kitchen full of women who were banging pots, laughing, talking and shouting into the phone over the terrible drone of some American soft-rock station while ignoring my singular presence almost completely. Which was just fine by me.

 
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