Thai Me Up, Thai Me Down
One Restaurant, Two Names, But Only Half an Adventure
So much do I hate puns--really, they anguish me--that for a long time I avoided ever patronizing Thai One One/San Sushi Too, the hybrid Thai-Japanese restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue in Towson. It also annoyed me, beyond any reason, that one restaurant had two names. Eventually I did go, and remember being somewhat less than transported. I recall the space as being standard-issue suburb-Asian, that dispiriting flattened-out sameness that infuses Asian restaurants from Berkeley to Biloxi. And the single smushed-together menu of Thai and Japanese cuisines was of the voluminous type that represents for some diners a world of choice but always induces in me a kind of paralysis. The food I barely remember. But the place has enjoyed a good reputation among the spicy set, so I chalked up my so-so experience to my churlish bias.
The people behind this restaurant have opened up a new spot in Canton, and although they've once again opted for a dual-identity name--Sushi-San/Thai Jai Dee--at least the name is pun-free (at least in English). The new place is located in a short strip mall off of Boston Street, and the best thing to be said about this location is that free parking is available to diners for up to two hours. It might seem unreasonable to be so dismissive about strip-mall dining, but there you have it. There's a place for people who want to drive their cars up to the front door--it's called Atlanta, and it's a nightmare.
The interior at Sushi-San seems designed to reassure diners that nothing surprising will show up on their plates. Just a stone's throw away from the harbor, it feels like an opportunity lost that no one will be inspired to make any connection between the seafood-based cuisine of Baltimore and what's served inside this carpeted, cushioned rectangle. The menu includes pages of Thai cuisine and pages of Japanese cuisine, the latter further divided into sushi specialties and such other fare as teriyakis, tempuras, and noodle dishes. There are, perhaps, fewer options in each category than there would be in a singularly focused restaurant, but still, the old paralysis returns--surely the kitchen here must do better with some things than others, but when everything is given equal weight on a menu, who could tell?
But, of course, if the food is great, if it really sends you, then none of this other stuff would have mattered. But the truth is that we just weren't feeling it for this place. If what you go looking for in Thai cuisine is complexity--a nuanced play of the sweet, salty, and sour--you'll find it mostly absent here. What we decided knocked most dishes off balance was a predominating sugariness. This happened particularly with the otherwise well-assembled and generously portioned chicken panang curry ($10.95) and the pad see-ew ($10.95), a sautéed rice noodle dish with chicken.
Although no one in my group would self-describe as a chilihead, we all still felt that our entrées had been toned down too much. Three stars on this menu resulted in what we gauged to be one-and-a-half stars of pepper; the evening's only real fire came with an excellent beef nahn thok ($6.95), a Thai salad that mixed grilled beef with chile peppers, onions, and lime juice. Other table favorites included the kaeng phed ped ($12.95), in which roast duck blended with pineapples and tomatoes simmered in a seductive red curry sauce; and the tham kha goong, a coconut-based soup with shrimp and mushrooms.
We visited the Japanese side of the menu mostly during the appetizer phase. The sushi and sashimi we chose from a check-off list were adroitly prepared and the fish was definitely fresh, but there was drama and beauty missing from the chef's assemblage. And with sushi, that matters. Similarly, an order of shrimp tempura ($5.95) missed another chance to get our attention--serviceable but homely.
I've discovered that the standard tod mun pla ($6.95) appetizer provides a reliable window into the soul of a Thai restaurant. If these little fried fish patties are allowed to be their stinky little selves, it usually means the restaurant has decided that its patrons are ready for some adventure. If, as happened here, the fish taste is all but obliterated by breading and frying, you can consider yourself warned that a tame meal is typically in store.