Sometimes even the most exotic meal is just dinner -- a warming plate of food and a couple of beers in a quiet booth. The spices and presentations may seem a little unfamiliar, or at least far from the American comfort-food canon, but as long as there's nothing too fussy -- food that needs to be assembled before you can eat it or cooked over little gas burners or hot plates -- the focus can shift from the act of dining as a means of cultural exploration to the primary goals of not having to cook at home, eating something nourishing in good company, and soaking in the vibe of a Saturday night. Thai Flavor certainly has its share of intense flavors and presentations, but mostly it's a comfortable little place that feels lived-in and welcoming.
Amy and I arrived in the strip-mall eatery at just the perfect time, about fifteen minutes before a group of twenty was seated for a family birthday dinner. In our booth at the back of the dining room, drinks in hand and our orders placed, we were able to relax and enjoy the view of three or four generations of a Thai family as they settled in with cameras, kids and cake.
Thai Flavor is decorated with a mix of black-velvet elephant paintings, potted orchids, traditional Thai tapestries and contemporary light fixtures. There's a DJ station at the back of the room, but it's a little cluttered with restaurant equipment and cardboard boxes; it clearly hasn't seen recent use. The tables in the booths are a little low, giving the feeling of being the oldest kid at the card table for a family Thanksgiving dinner.
The party of twenty was in no hurry, mingling in the center of the room, taking photos and relaxing over beers. That was perfect for us, since the kitchen could focus on our orders. My pad Thai, Amy's panang curry and our shared eggplant salad all came out at once, along with a second round of beers. Seconds later, two more beers arrived -- a mix-up in the kitchen.
The salad was a traditional dish of peeled eggplant roasted to a point just shy of mushy and doused in a tangy chile, lime and fish-sauce dressing. It was tossed with fresh cilantro and thick commas of purple onion, and topped with a unique egg preparation. The eggs appeared to have been cracked directly into hot oil and flash-fried so that the outsides were light and crispy -- like a light batter -- and the insides were the consistency of eggs over-easy. The method gave the eggs an airy, porous surface that soaked up the dressing, making each bite tart and pungent. The eggplant, too, drank up the lightly fishy sauce. The whole dish was refreshing and completely addictive, with mild heat and a few random boiled shrimp for texture contrast.
My pad Thai, ordered Thai-hot, was warming but not overwhelming. The predominant flavor was sour, fruity tamarind, with a hint of fish sauce and and mild pork from thin and tender slices of meat. For my final pad Thai of November, it was decent version -- bold but not quite balanced, and missing the bits of egg mixed in that give pad Thai a little extra silkiness. Amy's panang curry, though, was complex and rich. Coconut milk smoothed out the riot of spice while subtle peanut flavor tied everything together.
The big birthday group was just starting on a few appetizers as I paid the bill. We were just observers, but their fun spilled over to brighten our evening.
The social facet of eating in restaurants, absorbing energy from fellow diners, sometimes takes precedence over the task of exploring an unfamiliar cuisine. My pad Thai could have been a plate of spaghetti Bolognese, a bowl of ramen or a pile of pan-fried spaetzle and I might have enjoyed it just as much. It didn't demand attention and was easy to like. Sometimes that's all you need: just the simple enjoyment of an evening out and the unique mix of flavors that each dining room holds.
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