One Night in Bangkok
I know how Thai food tastes when eaten with the fingers in the back seat of a Toyota Celica parked facing the wrong way down a one-way alley, windows up, lights out, the air thick with stale pot smoke. I know the smell of it -- full and exotic -- curling up from the bulging lids of waxy cardboard takeout containers in a plastic bag that steams in the cold, a $40 feast bought on a new credit card that I'd never make a payment on until threatened by the law. I know its texture, gone limp in the 90 percent humidity of Tampa in August, as I sucked flat rice noodles through my teeth at one in the morning on the patio of a restaurant whose name I never knew, watching busboys race fat, black cockroaches along the railing at ten bucks a go.
I know how to cook Thai, at least a little. Certain dishes and ingredients and techniques must be part of the repertoire of any modern cook, and coconut milk curries, the creative use of pineapple, fast and dirty wok cooking -- these are useful rabbits to be able to pull from a hat. I learned my tricks from a Viet-Lao line cook at a Chinese restaurant in upstate New York who had anachronistic Nazi swastikas tattooed on the points of each elbow, his thin arms banded in Japanese kanji.
On occasion, I still crave the brutal oxy-acetylene burn of Sriracha hot sauce on chicken wings, washed away with long pulls of Tiger beer. That's a particular taste from my misspent youth -- nights at the Samurai, where they never checked IDs and would've served a fetus if it had a wallet. Sriracha was the only condiment offered, Tiger the only beer with a name I recognized -- and if the brew tasted like formaldehyde and ammonia, so what? I was a teenager, and beggars can't be choosers.
Mostly, though, I know Thai food in a rather more intimate context, with boxes and bags and cardboard cartons scattered across the rumpled topography of tangled bedsheets, plates balanced on bare knees, flavors all tangled up in a haze of sweat and pheromones, cigarette smoke, lipstick and the better brands of beer, which I can afford now that I'm legal and (more or less) solvent. Thai food is sex -- heat and sweet and complication, the construction of something lasting and lovely and infinitely adaptable by the creative combination of just a few constituent parts. The two go together like old jazz and rain.
I've never eaten pad thai in the land where it was born, never tasted the chiles, the kaffir limes, the tom yum goong ladled out fresh from the Night Bazaar in Chiang Mai -- but I know Thai food. I know it like an American does, which is to say I understand the translation of an Asian cuisine served to American crowds by an Asian staff at an American restaurant with an Asian owner.
I've never been to Bangkok, but I'm sure it looks nothing like Aurora. I'm sure that no restaurant in the whole of Thailand looks anything like Thai Basil II, the six-month-old little sister of the original and very successful Thai Basil in Washington Park. I'm sure that there's nowhere in Southeast Asia quite the same as the jointed strip mall where Thai II sits, angled to snap like a strange Lego into the crowded consumer landscape, the restaurant itself cast off into one distant arm flanked by an insurance agency and a nail salon. You wouldn't think that any table in Aurora would be hard to get, but Thai II often has a line.
On Saturday night, the suburbanites are standing on the sidewalk waiting to get in; more crowd into the claustrophobic waiting area; delivery drivers weave through the throng. Takeout orders keep the cash register going nonstop, the steel-grate shelves behind it crowded with plastic bags and Styrofoam containers. Elsewhere, there are ceramic Buddhas and those fat, grinning good-luck kitties, one paw raised, seen at nearly every Asian restaurant in the world. I'm thinking of getting one. These things must work.
In the dining room, the decor is like a half-price sale at Pier 1, with a lot of lacquered wood and bamboo, bright aluminum etched with flowing waves. It's the kind of look that would probably be cutting-edge hip in Des Moines, already ten years dated in L.A. Even on busy nights here, service is fast if you don't ask too many questions. A translation issue, this time linguistic: I order Vietnamese egg rolls and tom yum goong, expecting one thing and getting something totally other. The soup is like Campbell's tomato, thinned, then taken on a tour of Southeast Asia, picking up a new spice at every port of call. On the top, bobbing button-mushroom caps; at the bottom, shrimp slowly dissolving in the heady, spicy, acidic broth.
The egg rolls follow -- crisp, greasy and hot from the oil. They're wrapped in rice paper, in crisp layers like phyllo, sweet like phyllo. Inside, there's dark pork paste, richly seasoned and shot through with bits of jicama, julienne carrots, tangles of glass noodle and dark, murky slivers of mushroom. The chili-lime sauce that comes on the side -- on the side or right on top of half of Thai II's dishes, helping to create that sensation of complexity built with limited components -- looks like the Vietnamese nuoc cham dipping sauce I'm used to, the stuff I'd expect to come with an order of Vietnamese egg rolls. It has the same color, the same oily sheen, but tastes like lime zest rubbed with chile and set on fire.
Thai II has hot wings on the menu, fired by Sriracha, and a beer-and-wine list -- but no Tiger. Thinking back, I wonder now whether Tiger was even an actual brand; maybe it was just a name that the Samurai's bartenders gave to some other brew because it tasted so much like cat piss.
On another night, I drop in for golden tofu -- whole cubes of the bean paste, fried, served with soy. Fried tofu is one of the dishes I learned while studying at the Nazi elbow of the Chinese-restaurant cook. He'd take wet cubes of tofu, batter them (a culinary feat with a degree of difficulty on par with flour-dusting water), then gently, lovingly, lower them into the hot oil. If he was feeling particularly creative, he'd push a tiny rock shrimp into the center of each one. If he was feeling mean, he'd use those tiny, red Asian chiles and not tell anyone. When the cubes were done, we'd eat, popping them whole into our mouths -- no sauce, no side, no nothing. But Thai II's cubes aren't battered, just fried plain. The outsides are golden, kind of wiltingly crisp, and the insides are all yucky, soft and gooey -- like a gob of baby food plopped into a manila envelope. I hate it. I eat two, squash two into a balled-up napkin, leave two on the plate. Instead, I focus on the Thai fried rice -- another translation. It's a wonderful, everything-in-the-coolers mess of curry-infused grain with shrimp, egg, juicy bits of pineapple and fresh veggies, and cashews gone soft in the heat of the wok.
Fresh vegetables are a big thing at both Thai Basils. Their kitchens serve chunks of vegetables so pure and gleaming that they radiate flavor, cooked quickly so that they resist adulteration, each piece holding onto its own character. Pea pods taste exactly like pea pods: earthy, crisp and bluntly sugary. Pair them with shrimp, and you have two wholly separate flavors. Dress both in a garlic sauce -- dark and sweet and butter-rich, with an almost meaty thickness -- and you have three, each taste unwed to the others, distinct in itself. Bell peppers in curry work the same way: You have a pepper, then you have curry. And in a dish of mushrooms and thick slivers of water chestnut in sweet soy, the tastes hit and fade one after the other after the other.
I stop in on another night for the chicken coconut soup, a creamy coconut-milk-and-curry broth flecked with chile and gently sweet, with big slabs of milk-boiled chicken sitting at the bottom of the bowl. Next, satay chicken, which brings long pieces of breast meat, skewered, grill-charred almost like yakitori but not yakitori, and satay-style only in the translation of an American hotel catering a wedding reception. The accompanying peanut sauce is sweet, watery and inauthentic, but calibrated to meet those same inaccuracies in the meat. Sugar and char -- it works the way barbecue works, the way the American palate works. Sweet and meat together.
And then, buried in the middle of Thai II's menu, is sesame chicken, a Chinese safety dish. Every Asian restaurant serves sesame chicken as a fall-back option for the timid, and most will prepare it as white meat in limp batter topped with honey and melted SweeTarts. Some will make it a mockery of American tastes, and rightly so. But Thai Basil has sent this thoroughly American dish through finishing school, where it has gained a little class, so that now the batter is crisp, the sauce fragrant with sesame oil, and sweet, yes, but not cloying. The sugars are balanced by a spiciness jumped up with chile flakes, the chicken served on a bed of steamed vegetables so brilliantly fresh that they glow through the glaze of sauce.
But even done well, that's too much chicken for anybody. So on my next visit, I ask the waitress for One Night in Bangkok, with visions of opium dens, black-tar heroin and thirteen-year-old prostitutes dancing in my head. What I get are crabs. Soft-shells, specifically, dressed in sweet/hot karee curry and impossible to manipulate with chopsticks, so I go at them with fork and fingers. Since this is not the season for soft-shells, these were frozen somewhere along the way, and they taste like it -- not bad, but somewhat elderly, with the rough edges of natural brine and sweet, vulnerable, tender young meat rubbed off, the good crab flavor distant and tired. This is a copy of a copy of something probably eaten like fast food in the night markets of Thailand, something you get in a cardboard cone or wrapped in wax paper from a man squatting beside a charcoal brazier just steps from the water where the crab once lived. I imagine that you bargain for it, refuse to pay extra for the curry, haggle in a language that always sounds to me like nothing but vowels and the letter K. And there, in the real Thailand, I have no doubt that the flavor would be overwhelming, the soft crack of the shell between your teeth the sort of thing you remember long after forgetting all the temples, the hotels, the massage parlors. Most of Thai II's interpretations are good. This one is lost in translation.
Still, I want to ask the waitress if she gets the joke -- asking for One Night in Bangkok and walking out with crabs. Somehow, I manage to refrain: Language has its limits.
I leave Thai II with a takeout order of shrimp Penang curry, a box of rice and leftover crab, all stacked in a plastic bag. I'll let the curry mellow for a night, maybe two, in the fridge at home, then go after it at midnight. I'll eat by the blue glow of infomercials on the TV, or standing over the sink in the quiet and the dark, or, if it's a good night, I'll eat in bed, my wife and I sharing off one plate, still giggling, stupid drunk on love and curry. That's where Thai is always best -- coconut milk, bittersweet kaffir lime, peppery dark basil and sambal oleek chiles like lightning on the tongue, the universal flavor of sex in a borderless world.
Outside, the parking lot is full. People are waiting for tables. The register clatters and dings; the good-luck kitties wave. The front window, which looks out on an American strip mall in just another American suburb, has started to fog, running with condensation like sweat. I carry my bag to the car in the snow and on the way home, stop at the liquor store. I'm looking for Tiger beer. I have no luck.
I really have to get myself one of those cats.
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