A few weeks ago in the Deseret Morning News, food editor Valerie Phillips related the poignant and funny comments made by Thai Garden owner Ponpawit Numnuan when his restaurant won for both Best New Restaurant and Best Thai/Southeast Asian Restaurant at Salt Lake City Magazine's ninth-annual Dining Awards.
And when we visited Thai Garden recently for a weeknight family dinner, it's hard to say what we enjoyed more, the varied and delicious Thai dishes served up by Numnuan and his staff, or talking with the man himself about the Asian tsunami, the history of Thailand and his experiences working his way up the restaurant-management ladder.
I suppose the food wins; this is awfully good Thai, served in a quietly elegant setting by well-trained servers. And the best part is that Numnuan and his staff are willing, even eager, to recommend dishes for both timid and adventurous eaters.
We started with the combo appetizer, a diverse offering of two chicken satay and two por pia tod, vegetarian spring rolls with glass noodles and a crackly crust. Also on the plate was tod mun pla (curried fish cakes with green beans and Thai basil), curry puffs (tender turnovers filled with potatoes, onions and curry) and tofu tod (simple wedges of deep-fried bean cake). The appetizer came with smoky-rich peanut sauce, vinegary cucumber sauce enhanced with cabbage, cukes and chopped peanuts, and my favorite, snappy-and-fresh sweet chili sauce.
My family devoured the golden-brown satay, marinated overnight to achieve deep savory flavor, and in fact we ordered another plate of it just for the kids. But we also loved the sweet, soft curry puffs and the spring rolls, as well as the firm fish cakes. The tofu tod were plain and simple, soaking up instantly the flavor of whatever sauce we dipped them in.
I thought the kids would like an order of chicken pad thai, and they did, but its chewy noodles and assertive flavor, redolent of fish sauce and vinegar with sugar, probably appealed more to my husband and me. Instead, the kids focused on the pad woon sen, recommended by Numnuan as kid-friendly.
This is one of those dishes that proves that the real appeal of Thai food is its freshness and complexity, not necessarily its spiciness. The pad woon sen is mild but deeply flavored, with lean pork and delicate glass noodles stir-fried with scrambled egg, Napa cabbage, celery, onion and tomatoes.
As for me, I had to try the gang massaman, my favorite Thai curry. Thai Garden's excellent rendition is a milky, spicy golden stew of chicken, carrots, potatoes and peanuts, with curry, coconut milk and tamarind juice. As good as it was that night, it was even better heated up over rice the next day.
For dessert, the kids inhaled mangoes and sticky rice while I took a more leisurely time with a plate of warm, barely sweet and eggy (and green!) Thai custard over sticky rice.
Thai Garden, tucked away in a strip mall, is worth searching out. And probably there are a lot of places, maybe in your neighborhood, that are the same. If you know of an an overlooked eatery that's a neighborhood treasure, let me know. I just may stop by one of these days.Appetizers $4.95-$14.95; soup, salad and sides $3.95-$14.95; specialties $10.95-$16.95; entrees $6.95-$12.95; dessert $2.50-$5.95.
Rating: *** 1/2
Where: 4410 S. 900 East
Hours: Monday-Saturday 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-9 p.m. Closed Sunday
Payment: No checks accepted
Reservations: Accepted; recommended on weekendsPhone: 266-7899
Stacey Kratz is a freelance writer who reviews restaurants for the Deseret Morning News. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org