Thai for Two: Tasty Thai
1302 S. 500 E.
Mon.– Fri. 11:30 a.m. – 3 p.m.
Mon. – Thurs, Sun. 5 p.m.– 9:30 p.m.
Fri.–Sat. 5 p.m.– 10 p.m.
Great cities often have great parks in their hearts. Salt Lake is my city, and Liberty is its park. A lovely green space is a place of romantic possibilities, and for me, romance includes food and drink. Tasty Thai, on Liberty’s Southwest corner, is the only room with a view that has both. Its food is fresh, particular and consistent, and the lunch menu is a bargain and generous.
Tasty Thai specializes in curries dominated by strong flavors that have the ancient earthiness of Thai, but also a tang of vinegar and fresh ingredients, sunlight-bright on the tongue and sour enough to draw happy tears. Fresh rainforest smells dominate the vocabulary of many of the more common dishes served here, and some of the more uncommon dishes are great versions of what I think of as homey—some homey Chinese, some homey Thai.
The dining happens in a big, single room, windowed on two sides by parkward views, and colorful rice sacks glow a warm yellow down from the clerestory on a third wall. While not especially cozy, it is easy to be alone here, or alone together. The service is attentive and grows finer with repeated visits. The food is mostly good, and sometimes really head-turning. My impression is that everything on the menu says, “This is food the way we eat it—here, have some.” When I say this, I mean the flavors, not the heat. After you have formed a relationship with the restaurant, the heat they will offer you is just this side of chair-tiltingly strong if you wish, or blinding like brights on a semi on the highway, if you dare. This is a good thing. I get a side of the fresh-made chili sauce with my meal, which, in my experience, is unique on the local Thai table.
My dining consisted entirely of lunches, which are served until 3 p.m. The evening menu is much larger and more diverse.
My measure of Thai always starts with their indigenous salads. Thai salads are dominated by sharp and mildly sweet lime and kaffir lime leaf, with an undercurrent of anchovy and, hopefully, hot spice. I liked the Som-Tum (7.95) and the Larb (8.95). I ate the Larb with beef, but the pork is excellent, too. Som-Tum is a pounded green papaya and/or green bean salad with cucumbers and a little dried shrimp and peanuts. Both it and the Larb come served with a fist of sticky rice. It is best served very spicy, or at least pretty spicy, depending on your understanding of “hot.” The Larb salad is basically a minced fried-meat salad, brightly lime flavored, garlic strong and very happy indeed.
The two common Thai soups, as served here, are on the thin side, but that doesn’t mean they are just broth. Rich with ingredients, they seem thinner on the tongue than similar soups served by other places in town. That is both a bad and a good thing. Tom-Yum, for instance, is a biting soup, which is both hot and (wow) sour. I ate this particular dish for 20 lunches, and it still surprises me, but I like it—my fear and love of sour candy called upon.
The entrees come as a lunch combination, with a cup of Tom-Yum soup or salad (except the Larb and Som-Tum salads), topped in crunchy peanut dressing for $6.99, which is a no-brainer. Drinks are priced reasonably, from $2 for Thai-style fruit drinks to $3 and $4 for beer. Enough sake for two is $8, and wine is $6 for whites and $7 for reds.
The curries are fresh-tasting—they taste like scratch-made, private recipes. The Gang-Par is an exception, smelling strongly of canned bamboo shoots—like the pellets I feed the elephants at the zoo, which is to say, it smells like MSG. It is, however, only one of two items I encountered that were obviously heavy with the stuff, the other being the Kao-Pad-Ka-Prow, or spicy fried rice, which you can skip. I thought the Gang-Par was excellent—the hot, rich flavors like blue eyes and a beautiful voice on a “butterface,” and it was even better reheated as leftovers. The Gang-Koew-Whan (green curry) is light and fresh. The smells snap in your head while you eat—a wake-up call to tell you this is the real deal. The Pa-Nang is comfort food for me—easy, and not at all like anything I’ve had. It’s one of the stars of the menu: A red peanut curry, it eats like an Asian country gravy. I think about it the most.
Actually, there are two other dishes that also completely won me over. Both contrast the other items with their moderation and comfort. Like Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” or The Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now,” they stand out by being of a piece, but different from the things they surround. The Kao Pad (Thai fried rice), is simple, light and refreshing. The flavor was a mystery for a minute: simple black pepper used superbly. The awesome Lard-Na-Curry is a thick bowl of what seems like (and eats like) a rich, thick soup, but you wouldn’t get that from the menu, which simply says it is noodles with fresh vegetables in a thick curry sauce (as with the other dishes, you add your choice of meat or tofu). It is comforting in the extreme, and great for sharing (as are all the dishes) with a very slightly Madras curry flavor—the food equivalent of snuggling.