Spice Thai (Savage, MN)
By Karen Cooper and Bruce Schneier
January is the perfect time of year to enliven your taste buds and warm up with the light, flavorful and exotic cuisine of Thailand.
Central to Thai cooking is a complex union of flavor provided by ginger, lemongrass, garlic, cumin, basil, mint, lime, tumeric and more. And don't forget the chilies. Thai chefs have produced some of the most astoundingly hot foods we have ever tried (and failed) to eat.
Happily, Spice Thai, newly opened in Savage, is serving wonderful, aromatic food that is hot enough to warm you up but not melt you down.
We love Thai soups and how they symbolize the harmonies and balances of Thai cooking. Thai food is all about balance of tastes. Tom Yum soup is a distinctive hot-and-sour soup with huge shrimps and mushrooms, seasoned with lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, and galangal (similar to ginger), and mixed with the sour note of fresh lime and the sweet note of palm sugar. The combination is pungent and perfect on cold nights.
None of the appetizers inspired us, but Spice Thai offers wonderful, interesting salads. The seafood salad came with shrimp, scallops and squid, seasoned with chili, lime juice, anchovy paste and cilantro. Other salads are served over greens, or are made with thin silver noodles. We recommend at least one salad for the table.
Thai cooking generally uses meat as an accent rather than as the central ingredient. Curries and stir-fried dishes are meant to flavor rice. These are eaten with a spoon or fork, not chopsticks.
We found that Spice Thai has modified tradition for Western, and Midwestern, tastes. There's enough meat in the entrees to satisfy Western appetites, and nothing is too spicy. Dishes can be ordered at five different spice levels. We found both mild and medium to be very bland and hot to be mildly spicy. It wasn't until we got a dish at Thai hot that some of us were impressed.
With most of the entrees, you will select your preparation separate from your protein. Pad Holy Basil, for example, is sautéed Thai basil, onion, garlic, chili and vegetables, and can be made with beef, chicken, pork, shrimp, squid or tofu. Closer to Minnesota's heart might be Chu Chee, which is lightly fried walleye fillet in a red curry coconut sauce.
Spice Thai offers five curries. We liked the Gaeng Panang, a brown curry with coconut milk, ground peanut and kaffir lime leaves. Order with your choice of meat or tofu.
Pad Thai is the national dish of Thailand. It's a rice noodle dish with egg, scallions, tofu, peanuts, lime and a distinctive sauce. Even better was the Pork Noodle dish, seasoned with garlic, sprouts, onions and a traditional Thai sauce.
For dessert, order the sweet sticky rice with coconut cream and fresh mango. Or with coconut and egg custard. The sweets are a little better in Thai cookery than they are in most Asian cuisines.
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