The best way to explore food from a foreign land is to go with somebody who already knows the place the restaurant, the country or both. You know, the bon vivant who orders without looking at the menu, who breezes past the tourist attractions and heads straight for the money dishes.
Most of what I know about Thai food I learned in an hour and a half with somebody who really knows Thai food, and the Thai food at Madam Mam's in particular, somebody with genuine affection for owners Chatfuang ("Mam") and Sap Apisaksiri. Diverging from the obligatory path of pad Thai, tom yum soup and satay — all of which you can get at Madam Mam's and none of which I tried — I used somebody else's map to explore 10 dishes.
And now, because you can't all have lunch with the person who jump-started my Thai food education, here are eight of those dishes from Madam Mam's (the Westgate Boulevard and Anderson Lane locations) that you can use to initiate, or illuminate, your own education. Bring friends. Impress them by ordering without a menu.
Green Apple Salad($7.95; S6 on the menu): Easy textures and simple flavors build into a startlingly complex and refreshing salad. Green apples in matchsticks and wedges, roughly diced chunks of tomato and crunchy nuggets of ground peanut form a base, laced with lime, garlic, tiny dried shrimps whose flavor you shouldn't think too hard about, Thai pepper for a kick and sugar to soften the blow. And the fish sauce. The funk of fermented fruits of the sea adds all the funky depth and salt your senses need to embrace the fact that you've left meat and potatoes behind.
Tiger Cry ($15.95; P48): Even the meat-and-potatoes dish provides a little dinner theater, with the role of your starch being played tonight by sticky rice. Generous cuts of sweet and tender grilled beef will remind you of the fajitas you made back when you had the time for elaborate marinades. Roll the rice into little balls and experience the hot mess of dark brown sauce that breathes like black pepper and gym socks but tastes like inky nirvana.
Tom Kha ($7.50 with chicken, P11): Aromatic therapy squeezed from a coconut shell, shot through with a sunburst of Thai limes and the leaves from the makroot trees that carried them. It's hot, sour, creamy, dreamy, brought to Earth by the floral sting of a gingery root called galangal. Served with rice.
Noodle Lord ($6.95, add $2 for ground pork; G5): Not a title, but rather a description of the soft, flat noodles of this street staple, married in a dish as motley brown as tobacco with soy, gnarled mushrooms and marinated tofu with color and texture almost identical to the ground pork my guide likes to add.
Tom Khlong ($7.50 with chicken; NS15): The least revelatory of the roster, it's still a bracing noodle soup with an all-star lineup from the Thai pantry: roasted galangal, shallots, lemongrass, makroot leaf, lime juice, fish sauce, sugar, Thai basil, Thai peppers. Respect the leathery red peppers that look and burn like the devil's fingernails.
Khao Soi ($8.50 with stew beef; P15): My guide says Mam's version of red curry and coconut soup with egg noodles is better than its counterparts in northern Thailand. Who am I to argue?
Keow Wan Beef Curry ($11.25; P44): More curry, this time in a dish almost like your mom's pot roast, if your mom used eggplant, makroot lime leaves and jalapeño.
Yum Green Bean Salad ($10.95 with shrimp; S5): An ambrosia of roasted coconut and coconut cream insinuates itself around tender shrimp, peanuts, cut green beans and slices of boiled egg. It might be too sweet for you. That's why we've saved it for dessert.
4514 Westgate Blvd. 899-8525, www.madammam.com .
2700 W. Anderson Lane (at right), Suite 419, 371-9930
2514 Guadalupe St., 472-8306
Rating:8 out of 10
Hours:11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily
Prices:Appetizers $3.50-$10.95. Salads $4.50-$9.95. Noodle dishes and soups $6.95-$9.50. Special meat and seafood dishes $9.95-$15.95. Desserts $4.50-$5.50.
Payment:All major cards
Alcohol:Small beer and wine list
What the rating means:The 10-point scale for casual dining is an average of weighted scores for food, service, atmosphere and value, with 10 being the best.