This location is closed
Attention, residents of Perry Hall, White Marsh, and Parkville, citizens of Middle River, Kingsville, and Hydes: A nice new family-run Thai restaurant has opened in your area, and some of your grateful neighbors have already discovered it, just a few steps from the bowling alley. Bouala’s Thai Restaurant—named for the owner’s mother, whose name means “lotus flower”—is a straightforward place, with few surprises on its menu or in its preparations. It ultimately succeeds by meeting everyday expectations for enduringly popular Thai cuisine.
The ambiance and service have issues. The storefront space has mostly resisted the owners’ decorative touches—warm yellow paint, a few wall hangings—and it remains a cold, institutional space. Tables aren’t so much thoughtfully arranged as placed until they fill up the floor—booths would help, as would partitions and screens. Two young waitresses dutifully worked the dining room but were ultimately unable to refill water glasses, respond to intermediate requests, and clean off our abandoned tables consistently. Bouala’s needs a busser.
The menu is very easy to navigate. The price of most stir-fried entrées depends on what kind of protein you order—tofu ($7.95), chicken or pork ($8.95), and so on, including squid ($10.95), duck ($10.95), and scallops ($12.95). Noodle and fried-rice dishes round out the main-course offerings, along with a handful of whole-fish and soft-shell crab entrées. Nothing we expected to see on the menu was missing and, other than the availability of squid and duck, nothing we didn’t was.
Taud mun pla ($5.50), indispensable deep-fried fish cakes, were there, and Bouala’s version turned out to be curiously spongy. They were underfishy and underspiced, too, betraying little evidence of chile, basil, or kaffir. Far better was a generous plate of larb gai ($7.95), that familiar preparation of finely minced chicken, chile, lime juice, and herbs. Forks went flying for this well-balanced, impressively fresh dish, which gave off just enough chile heat to wake up the palate without scorching the tongue. Satay chicken ($5.50) betrays an alien, slightly discomfiting flavor in the marinade—could it have been coconut?—but the accompanying peanut sauce was indisputably fine, persuasively homemade. The vinegary and negligible little cucumber salad that came out with these appetizers was more liquid-y than the customary batch.
Bouala’s makes a tremendous pad Thai ($9.50), evidence, perhaps, that peanuts are the chef’s favorite ingredient. The dish was an unabashed goober pleasure, but the triumph here was in evenly coating very thin noodles with a thick and toothsome peanut sauce without making the whole thing gloppy. Even nicer, the tofu had been separately fried into large, springy squares before its mixing with the noodles, scallions, and strands of egg.
Drunken noodles ($9.50) were equally pleasing in their comforting way, with a resolutely spicy brown sauce coating broad rice noodles, fresh basil leaves, and vegetables. It would have been even nicer with fewer bell peppers—no one turns to Asian food for a green pepper—and if the tomatoes and onions had been cut up a little smaller.
Big onions and tomatoes showed up, unadvertised, in pad prik khing ($10.95, with duck), a stir fry of meat, green beans, kaffir lime leaves, and red chile paste. Bouala’s stir fries are missing just a little bit of pizazz, and those big vegetables are what make them look a little sloppy. But they taste fine, with a smart blend of flavors, none dominating the other. A smart addition was the duck, just fatty enough to add full flavor, its texture nicely complementing the snappy beans.
Pad prew wahn ($10.95, with shrimp) will satisfy those who like it mild. The always risky sweet-and-sour sauce, so often simply sugary, was actually balanced evenly between the two competing sensations here, and the add-ins of tomato, cucumber, pineapple, and scallions were colorful and fresh.
Bouala’s has a full carry-out menu and serves a lower-priced lunch on weekdays. Right now, the ambiance doesn’t suggest itself so much for intimate evenings. And while the good food, manageable prices, and BYOB policy make it a viable destination for thrifty families and other big groups, the understaffing might make you pause. Bouala’s ultimately won’t revolutionize the way you think about Thai food, but if you do think about Thai food, say on a weekly basis, its opening in Perry Hall is a very good thing.