Thai Basil was loud, boozy and hairy -- just like my senior prom date. And I enjoyed both about the same. I ate there, specifically the Washington Park location, twice this summer, for a cumulative total of two hours of my life that I'm never going to get back.
I had driven by the place a few times and noticed that there was always a line outside, so I figured there had to be a reason for its popularity. Well-prepared Thai food -- with its intoxicating aromas of creamy coconut and blistering fried chile peppers and the salty tang of fish sauce -- is worth a lobby squat, but as I stood among a throng of sweaty, raucous college kids, my attention was drawn to their raison d'etre, and it sure wasn't the food.
No, it was the conspicuous plastic banner on the building that read "Special: 5-10 p.m. quarter domestic beer, fifty-cent imported beer, and $2 glasses of house wine with meal purchase." During my first few years of college, I would have gladly sucked down a can of cat food to get access to such a cheap booze grab.
I was hurried to a table next to a window, and the noise level was at NASCAR proportions even toward the back of the room. The wine list was uninspired, with predictable Napa Valley merlots and chardonnays. I chose a glass of Whitehaven Sauvignon Blanc, a lemony-hued, medium-bodied wine with low sugar and pronounced bitey citrus and underripe gooseberry aromas. My server could not tell me its vintage (FYI, 2006 was a great year), and it seemed doubtful that anyone else in this place was interested in pairing anything except beer with their mouths.
Twenty minutes after I got my drink, I nailed down my server long enough to order the lemongrass mussels and the chicken coconut soup off the appetizer menu. Then, after forty-odd minutes of waiting, I got my meal. I was really cutting the server some slack, since the poor guy was running a marathon trying to keep up with bar orders.
The mussels were blanketed in a thick, cloyingly sweet brown sauce and overwhelmed with red and green bell peppers. The mussel meat was tough, the lemongrass almost non-existent, and the one shell I pried open had an overcooked squiggle of meat that was sporting a curly blond hair, complete with follicle. I'm not a blonde.
I had to wait a few minutes for my server to finish his bar runs so I could show him my golden treasure, so I gingerly sipped at the soup. He was shockingly cavalier about the hair, and whisked the dish away without comment. My previous tom kha (literal translation: boiled chicken soup) experiences had usually included a large, steaming tureen of creamy coconut broth, punctuated with fiery red dots of fish sauce and smoky fried chiles, scented with woody slices of galangal (a peppery, piney-flavored root that looks like ginger but with a different taste) fighting for a place alongside slices of clean white chicken meat, earthy straw mushrooms and cut sticks of real, citrusy lemongrass; some versions have seafood, tofu, cilantro or even slices of carrot for color.
Thai Basil's version tom kha was bland, its watery broth boasting only a few button mushroom slices and a disproportionate amount of red onion hunks. I only regret small portion sizes when the food is worth singing about; this wasn't. I paid my tab and left, dodging the now rock-concert-sized throng of university weekend warriors and squeezing out the door between two girls arguing about somebody's relationship status on Facebook.
I've worked in plenty of restaurants, and I know they have good days and days that make the employees wanna eat a shotgun. So I gave Thai Basil another go in the interest of keeping the food universe in balance. Once again, I squeezed my way through a new crowd of drunken revelers. Unfortunately, no Jedi mind trick I could conjure was going to tone the noise level down to even a healthy restaurant din, and no wave of my hand would make the second meal I got any less disappointing.
I cut to the food this time, ordering the Royal Chicken, Thai Eggplant and One Night in Bangkok (if you don't get the Murray Head reference, then it's past your bedtime, kids). Then I took a look around at the other diners to see what the hot-ticket menu items were for the locals. I saw a lot of Satay chicken, a few salads and appetizer samplers (consisting of egg rolls, crab cheese wonton, Vietnamese spring rolls and hot wings) and the occasional pad Thai or fried rice.
But the common thread was that the entrees in front of these people were largely uneaten, while the tables were covered with beer bottles in various stages of empty. It looked like a frat-house lawn on a Sunday morning. As it turned out, they were smart to ignore the food.
Thai Basil's Royal Chicken consisted of limp slices of breast meat weighed down by a profusion of bell peppers and red onions, a few mushrooms, carrot slices and water chestnuts, all slathered in the same sweet brown sauce that had soaked the mussels at my previous dinner. The eggplant was cooked properly, but the menu described it as being hot and flavorful with basil and mint, and the only thing I tasted was that same ubiquitous, sugary brown sauce. The unholy trinity of red and green bell peppers and red onion anointed every dish I ordered at Thai Basil; using them for color and flavor is fine; using them as filler is not.
The softshell crab with karee curry dipping sauce was inadequate: two crabs, with really thick, almost doughnut-like breading, served on a bed of none-too-fresh spring mix, with a sauce that was interesting in that bad sort of way. The cup filled with gooey, caramel-colored paste tasted like a molten Christmas gingerbread cookie, and Jesus-Bell-Pepper-Christ....it was an infestation.
As I was mowing through the crab, I noticed a thin, wiry black strand snaked around a lettuce leaf. I took hold and pulled it out...slowwwwly.....until it was now crushingly obvious that I had found yet another damn hair in my food. This one was a beauty -- shiny, dark and no split end. Whoever planted this in my supper must've used great shampoo.
I flagged down my server, who was winded from his last beer transport. I pointed at the hair with my fork, and he placed his hands on his forehead and groaned. No check, please.