South Baltimore Earns Decent Neighborhood Thai
With the arrival of a new Thai restaurant a few months back, Federal Hill's collection of international dining is nearing completion. All that's missing now is food from Sweden and Burkina Faso. Every grown-up urban neighborhood deserves a good Thai restaurant, and Thai Arroy is off to a respectable niche-filling start.
Thai Arroy's storefront location has been niftily transformed into a lively, inviting space, with abundant Thai-proud decorations, including vivid room-length murals on both side walls and brightly patterned cloths beneath glass on each table. On a recent Sunday night, a smallish line was forming for Thai Arroy's 10 tables, which are, perhaps, squished a tad close in some quarters. Thai Arroy's apparently instantaneous popularity seemed to be taxing the two servers on duty, resulting in fitful, at best, appearances of refills of hot tea and cold water. (A general note to servers: Just tell me if you think I've had enough to eat, but stop trying to take away my plate before I'm finished.)
While it's perfectly capable of sending an occasional whopper out to the table, Thai Arroy's kitchen delivers enough winners to merit a return trip. Among the appetizers sampled over two separate visits, the clear winner was the larb ($5.95), a complex and aromatic minced beef salad, peppery with a smooth finish of mint. Yum ma keau ($6.95) mixed grilled eggplant with pork and shrimp in a chili sauce a bit inelegantly, but it was tasty nonetheless. The spring rolls ($4.95) were appreciated for their lack of grease and fresh-tasting cabbagey fillings.
Tod mun pla ($5.95), the familiar fish cake appetizer, served with chili sauce and cucumber salad, was mildly disappointing. A bit unassertive, it simply wasn't fishy enough. Far less successful were yum pla duk, a spicy catfish appetizer ($6.95) served with greens, in which what little catfish that could be discovered was severely over-breaded; and tom yum pla ($4.95), which was described as a hot-and-sour lemon-grass soup, but which tasted unpleasantly like salty chicken soup.
Entrées were more uniformly pleasing, though never quite inventive or surprising--qualities that may be too much to ask of a neighborhood Thai joint. Ordered at lunch, the tried-and-true kha prao ($6.95), which combines beef (or chicken or pork) with chili sauce, string beans, and basil, was its familiar-tasting self, vegetables crisp-looking and fresh-tasting. The drunken noodles ($6.95), too, were a more-than-acceptable preparation of a staple, with its slurpy pan-fried broad rice noodles stir-fried with Chinese broccoli, egg, and basil.
At a return visit for dinner, the big winner was the kha-na moo krob ($8.95), stir-fried crispy pork with Chinese broccoli and bean sauce, a dish that could easily have been oily or sloppy but which Thai Arroy prepared expertly. My companion pronounced his duck dish, ped chu-chee, among the best he's ever had in a Baltimore Thai restaurant, with the duck itself, topped with chili paste in coconut milk, neither too dry nor too greasy (although greasy duck is not necessarily a bad thing).
Another companion took a chance on pla jian, the whole steamed fish (market price), opting for rockfish over flounder. The fish was a beauty, its skin moist, glistening, and well-colored. Credit must go to the surgical skills of my friend, who set about attacking the beast, discovering its beautifully steamed meat. A dish of tofu and vegetables was underspiced and arrived less than hot.
Dessert proved to be the slightly comical affair that it often is in Thai restaurants, where the selections can bear a disconcerting resemblance to school paste. The rice pudding ($1.95), divvied up mysteriously (to us) into three separate small ramekins, was oddly hot and eerily smooth; the egg custard over sticky rice ($3) was another alarming affair, with what tasted like a sugared scrambled egg draped over the rice. A taro custard ($3) would have tasted better had it been allowed to come up to room temperature.
None of my dining companions at Thai Arroy was a self-described heat freak, no adventurer in search of tongue-searing fire. Even so, I think Thai Arroy could afford to turn up the fire a notch or two across the board--say, from four to six on the heat-o-meter. I think fervid aficionados might be disappointed in the restaurant's apparent commitment to play it safe. No one wants to see Thai cuisine slide into blandness.
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