Fire and Spice

Two Southeast Asian delights are heating up the winter dining scene

Like many great cuisines in well-populated countries, Thai cooking is largely regional. Two of our newer Thai restaurants illustrate the point with both elan and originality.

Weera Thai has no atmosphere to speak of; it’s a boxy storefront by a massage parlor on a nondescript stretch of Sahara Avenue, west of Interstate 15. I think of it as a poor man’s Lotus of Siam, a more celebrated restaurant where the owner also hails from Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand.

Two dishes to try here are papaya salad (a.k.a. som tam) and sup nor mai, a spicy bamboo salad. These are both Thai street dishes, best for eating with the fingers, pressed into clumps of sticky rice. Normally, I eat Thai barbecued chicken with this mix, too, but in three visits, the restaurant had “run out” each time. Call to make sure they are serving it. They actually do, sometimes, and it’s great.

But you can depend on the amazingly delicious larb ped, ground duck mixed with rice powder, lime juice and chili, or the duck-bone soup, an intense broth stocked with big pieces of duck on the bone. Dadd deaw is deep-fried jerky, either beef or pork, and both are delicious, if chewy to the point of jaw-breaking. A specials board offers more guidance.

Not far north of Weera Thai, on downtown’s hip East Fremont Street, Le Thai was still lacking an outdoor sign when I visited. But the restaurant is framed by a corrugated, rusted metal front, and inside, there is a small dining area next to the kitchen, and a larger outdoor patio already doing a land-office lunch business. It’s perhaps the most serious ethnic restaurant to open downtown in several years. And already it is inspiring a passionate fan base of obsessive repeat eaters.

The restaurant belongs to Dan Coughlin, who grew up in a Thai restaurant family and who is doing dishes that taste like ones cooked by his grandmother. Celebrity chef Kerry Simon is quite obsessed with Coughlin’s pad thai. “He stood in the kitchen and made me cook it in front of him,” Coughlin says. After tasting it, I understand.

Pad thai is a stir-fried rice-noodle dish done in one form or another by every Thai restaurant in this country. Many places mix the noodles with pork, chicken, shrimp or tofu, plus peanuts, bean sprouts and chilies.

I love pad thai, but most Thai restaurants in town use a pre-made, sticky sweet red sauce that I can’t abide. Not here. Coughlin’s using his grandmother’s recipe: lots of cilantro, garlic and fiery spice. They will ask you how hot, using the numbers one to five as a scale. Better keep it at three, unless you’re a fire-eater.

Simply stated, this is the best pad thai I’ve had outside Thailand.

Otherwise, the core menu here is tiny. Coughlin isn’t using shrimp yet, and his use of beef is limited, to keep prices down.

So content yourself, for the moment, with dishes such as pork jerky, three-color curry with chicken and a toothsome beef meatball noodle soup, the latter properly rich, made from a stock slow-simmered with bones, meat and tendons. If larb salad is on the specials board, don’t hesitate. It’s ground pork or chicken with rice powder and chili on salad greens, and I’m developing an obsession of my own for it.

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