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Currying favor

Go Fish certainly has Asian-American fusion down, and that's because the owners learned a few things at Spicy Basil, which they'd opened a few years before in the other corner of the same building. The fact that Spicy Basil had replaced a failed barbecue restaurant and I didn't hold the former's closing against the latter occupant was amazing enough, but that I became an unabashed fan of the new kid on the block surprised even me. I mean, it was just another Americanized Thai-Chinese storefront with a little Tokyo flavor thrown in for kicks, working with the same concept as a hundred other restaurants in this city, a million across the country. For the longest time, I couldn't figure out what it was about the place that I found so engaging, so tempting that I would return again and again, almost always ordering the same thing: shumai, a plate of Penang curry.

Finally, I realized that what I like so much about Spicy Basil is as simple as consistency. Nothing about the experience ever varies. The service is always fast. The bill is always cheap. The crowds are always the same cross-section of Broadway neighbors and employees on lunch, a girl giggling too loudly while talking about how drunk she was the night before, some older man complaining about the spice in his Spicy Basil chicken and waving his hand in front of his face. And the food is consistently good — as though the kitchen is staffed not by actual flesh-and-blood cooks, but gleaming, tireless robots: the Food-mo-Tron 5000 series, capable of banging out 10,000 absolutely identical curries a year with a zero percent margin of error. This crew can turn out an Americanized Kung Pao chicken as quickly and easily as a Thai pad selew, a plate of gyoza as blandly universal as the pad thai or key lime pie for dessert. Each pyramid of rice is the same as every other pyramid of rice, and even the plates — white and oversized — seem to speak to the tool-and-die perfection of every dish served here. While white plates show errors more readily, there are never any errors to show.

When I stopped in last week, I ordered my usual. The shumai — looking forlorn on their bed of shredded lettuce — were wonderful, and the chicken Penang curry tasted exactly as I expected it would, exactly as it always will: sweet and spicy at the same time, creamy with coconut and thick with potatoes, vegetables and tender, white-meat chicken speckled with red chile. So while Go Fish may present a somewhat more challenging board and a somewhat more unique take on the intersection of American and Asian tastes, Spicy Basil will remain the operation that set the standard, a spot that hooks me every time.

 
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