RESTAURANT REVIEW: Taste of Thai 

Tasty Thai: You can find the Far East in West Ashley these days

Taste of Thai
Thai/Vietnamese
Inexpensive ($5.95-18.95)
874 Orleans Road, West Ashley
(843) 573-8825
Serving lunch and dinner, daily

You don't always expect to find great ethnic food within spitting distance of a shopping mall, but then again, ethnic enclaves in America always tend to cluster in areas of decline, where the rent comes cheap and hungry people just want a square meal without the fuss. Perhaps Taste of Thai represents an omen then, a final nail prepared for the coffin of suburban white flight.

One can only hope this to be the beginning of a new trend. Dozens of noodle shops and dim sum houses might invade West Ashley with the wafting fragrances of the Orient; perhaps the bronzed skins of Peking duck will one day line the plate-glass windows of former Jiffy Lubes and the masses will descend for a bona fide taste of far-off lands. Taste of Thai, with its three flavor fish, sticky rice, and spicy Thai curry, certainly makes a fine progenitor.

If nothing else, go for the duck. It comes in red curry or a basil variety ($15.95 lunch, $18.95 dinner), crackling and roasted, dripping with the nuances of fish sauce, spice, and fermented soy. The portions are gargantuan, the sauce complex, and the spice just a tick above comfortable, which means they've toned it down considerably from what the cook eats at the end of his shift. Slipping past the doors and snuggling into the trendy booths, one gets the feeling that much of the fare here is adapted to American tastes, but a clear effort has been made to retain some sense of authenticity.

The names of dishes vacillate between the common and the almost unpronounceable — a "Garlic" here for $10.95, or a Prik Khing (also $10.95) over there. The list goes on. There is the Pad Woon Sen and the Pad Kee Mow, the Kai Yang and the Ka Noom Jeeb, plus eggrolls, stuffed shrimp, crab wontons, and my personal favorite, American fried rice ($15.95). It comes piled high with everything under the sun, super-sized with the usual egg slivers, sautéed onion, and baby shrimp, but accessorized with pineapple, sweet sausage, and fried chicken. They seem to have cornered the West Ashley market for both authentic Thai and snarky American takeoffs of Asian cuisine.

No matter what you order, or how it's pronounced, you can't really go wrong here. Since we've discovered Taste of Thai, the Pad Prik ($10.95), full of garlic, onions, and Thai basil has become a family favorite. And the pad Thai might be the best in town. Too often the pad Thai served at restaurants are a pile of limp, overcooked noodles, spiked with too much sugar and not enough lime. The version at Taste of Thai brings nuance, textural contrast, and well-cooked noodles. The flavors swirl together in perfect balance — the spicy, sour, and sweet meeting up in the perfect expression of Thailand's national dish.

Curries also offer outstanding value. For $10.95 you get a pile of chicken, beef, pork, shrimp, or tofu, packed with the flavors of the Far East. I waver between the green and yellow varieties, the green being slightly more vegetal, the yellow a fiery expression full of turmeric and stout with boiled potatoes. The masaman (Muslim) curry adds cashews to the mix and a spicy red sauce that warms the soul.

Dessert costs $3.95. It brings fried ice cream or the sweet, sticky rice that defines the Thai tradition, topped with fresh mango, avocado, or sweet coconut custard, fitting ends to a magnificent meal.

We need more places like Taste of Thai in this town. Places where pretense is nonexistent (if you can ignore the cheesy classical music), the food is honest, and the prices mean the whole family can tag along. If you can't make it to the restaurant, the delivery comes free. Just make sure you have cash, because searching around for 40 bucks with an impatient delivery man at the door is never very fun.

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