Darkness Palls

Noted food writer and humorist Calvin Trillin once said something to the effect that when dining out he didn't much care if he had to eat in a dark closet serenaded by four female tuba players, as long as the chef was happy. In theory I go along with this sentiment: Ambience is never one of my priorities when deciding on a restaurant. In practice, though, I had to swallow hard when I ate at Thai Café.

It's not that the ambience was bad, exactly. In truth, it was almost too dark to see the ambience. I had just read a piece in Newsweek about a performance-art restaurant in Paris where the diners eat in total darkness, served by, I kid you not, blind waiters. For a moment, I was afraid that the people at Thai Café had read the same article.

But the booths and tables are comfortable, and once my eyes adjusted to the gloom, reading the menu quieted my misgivings. They vanished completely when the food arrived.

Nua kem ($4.95) is an appetizer rarely seen around town: Thai-style beef jerky. It's spicy and sweet, slightly salty and chewy, and it's served with a vibrant citric green sauce for dipping -- guaranteed to snap your taste buds to attention.

A Thai meal is never complete without soup, and I use tom ka gai ($2.50 small, $9.95 large) as a benchmark for judging Thai restaurants. This one rates well: The spicy, lime-based broth is smoothed with coconut milk and filled with chicken, mushrooms and galangal (a close relative of ginger). It's a heart- (and mouth-) warming bowl of soup.

The beef salad ($8.95) is another winner. Cool, grilled slices of beef are served with a spicy lime dressing and tossed with red onions, scallions, tomato and lots of refreshing mint. On a hot day, it's just the thing.

Thai Café spices aggressively; dishes ordered mild-to-medium arrive closer to medium than to mild. Order something extra-hot -- as I ordered the spicy cashew shrimp ($9.95), and you can expect it to be downright incendiary. The large shrimp were sautéed with a dangerous homemade chili paste and further heated with scallions, onions and lots of peppers.

But Thai Café can also make do without heat. Ordered mild, the yellow curry, gang ga-lee ($8.95), was still delicious: chicken and potatoes bathed in a gentle sauce. (Even so, I suspect it would have been better at least medium-hot.)

I'm a sucker for duck, and the twice-cooked duck with basil ($10.95) made me very happy. The richness of the juicy, greaseless roast duck played against the bite of the peppercorns it had been sautéed with. When those slices of duck are topped with a brown sauce and served over crunchy, slightly bitter Chinese broccoli, the play of textures and tastes is intoxicating.

Tofu ginger ($7.75) strayed a bit too far on the bland side. But the hunks of tofu and vegetables are light, and a nice foil to the richer, more highly spiced dishes.

Pad Thai ($7.50) was good, but not sensational. The rice stick noodles are sautéed with shrimp, tofu, bean sprouts, scallions and "special sauce," then served with bean sprouts, crushed peanuts and lime, with an omelette on top. The noodles weren't sautéed with enough egg to pull the dish together, and the omelette on top added nothing to the festivities.

But the olive fried rice ($7.95) was an unmitigated triumph. Aromatic jasmine rice is sautéed with minced pork, chopped salty olives, sweet Chinese sausage, Chinese broccoli and scallions, then served in a clay pot with a fiery green sauce on the side, to be added at your discretion. If only all fried rice were this goodŠ

Thai is one of the few Asian cuisines whose desserts I look forward to -- no dry pastries, no weird gelatin things. Here, for $5.50 you can get a nice combination of the house specialties: warm, sweet, sticky rice served with a warm, sweet egg custard (pure comfort food), the same rice served with cool, fresh mango, and two scoops of a good homemade coconut ice cream. Even better, though, is a new creation. Thai Café had the brilliant idea to make ice cream out of Thai iced tea, the milky, aromatic stuff served at most Thai restaurants. The ice cream ($2.50) is not to be missed.

All of life's a trade-off -- and even though Thai Café's decor won't win awards, a friendly staff and terrific food make the gloom seem pleasant. And besides, you can always order your food for takeout.

Thai Cafe. 10928 Westheimer. (713) 780-3096.

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