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Little Thailand, big flavor

Kanjanut and Thanet Thomas honor the legacy of famed Garfield restaurant while forging their own flavorful path

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com
Holy basil infuses the pad gra prow with a fennel-like flavor. [JAY JANNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

You ever take the first bite of a dish and feel it completely wash over you? The warmth, the spice, the texture, the umami. It’s a blanket you wear on the inside. It can’t just be me. Right?

That’s what happened when I spooned my first taste of the massaman curry studded with potato, nuts and beef at Little Thailand ($12). The galangal, the garlic, the baking spices, the chiles, all lifted by a sweet wave of coconut milk, took away any other smell or feeling I had when I sat down. It was a complexity that spoke to the freshness and craft of mortar and pestle, not the thin, hollow slap of an empty can. My body tingled.

Thanet Thomas watched my reaction with a knowing smile. He long ago realized the culinary skill of his wife, Kanjanut Thomas, and seemed delighted we recognized it, too. Kanjanut is the niece of Surin Simcoe and her late husband, Dick, who ran the restaurant in Garfield for more than two decades before it closed in 2014, five years after Dick’s death. The Thomases reopened it last winter with Kanjanut, whose mother, Malee Pierce, used to cook with her aunt Surin, running the kitchen. And she does so with an attention to detail that, along with an herbal bounty ringing the restaurant, lead to deeply satisfying dishes from her native Thailand.

You sense the presence of garlic and galangal again in the green curry, but the kaffir lime leaves, plucked from a tree just behind the small restaurant, give the ambrosial dish its floral lift. The pleasing touch of coconut milk doesn’t overwhelm the curry, allowing the serrano peppers to leave their sting and giving way to the slight bitterness of sliced green eggplant ($12). Supple roasted duck releases its fat into a red curry ($12), at once vegetal (purple eggplant), spicy (serrano peppers), pungent (basil) and sweet (pineapple, grapes and just the right amount of coconut milk). Our continual delight lit up Thanet’s eyes at every turn.

The faces may have changed at Little Thailand, but the quality remains and has improved. Thanet references his uncle often while talking about the honor and responsibility that come with carrying on Simcoe’s famous hospitality in the small dining room that seats about 40. While the furtive horseshoe shaped bar in the back and Thai Bloody Mary’s that Dick turned into cult classics no longer exist, Thanet does embody his uncle’s bonhomie, shaped equally by the famously hospitable Thai culture in which Thomas was raised. And Surin's occasional appearances in the dining room conjure the restaurant's early years. 

We asked before ordering whether the dumplings and fish cakes were made in house, more out of curiosity than any purity test. The answer was yes, and it’s apparent in auburn fish cakes, all aromatics, spice and perfumed crunch from fried Thai basil, served with sweet, mild vinegar sauce dotted with cucumbers ($8). And the dandelion colored egg washed wrappers of the pork dumplings, which crowned at the top and held candied pieces of garlic ($6.95), left no mistake that the menu holds no afterthoughts.

If you come in looking for pad Thai, there’s no doubt Kanjanut can handle that, but Thanet may attempt to direct you to another dish. We needed no prodding to decide on the salty, smoky sweetness of pad see-ew ($9.95). The plump shrimp, wok-fired smokiness encasing the slippery snap of noodles and butter crunch of Chinese broccoli found harmony in every tangled bite. And by the time we ordered the fried catfish, crunchy but still light enough to float in its Thai chili sauce draped with strands of green peppercorn like victory garlands, he knew we had things under control ($12.95).

But we didn’t quite have everything figured out. There was still the issue of the pork pad kra prow we were savoring. "Oh, fennel sausage, interesting cheat," we thought, stupidly, misidentifying the slivered celery. But there were no shortcuts with the pad kra prow, brimming with umami from maggi sauce and colored with the crisp snap of red and green peppers. That licorice flavor vibrating around the toasty chili notes was actually coming from the holy basil expertly integrated into the sauce. By the time Kanjanut appeared from the kitchen and delivered a perfect iteration of mango sticky rice shaped like a beautiful flower, we wanted to stand up at the table and clap.

Somewhere Uncle Dick is pouring a Thai Bloody Mary and smiling.

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Little Thailand

4315 Caldwell Lane. Garfield, Texas. 512-551-9930, littlethailandtx.com

Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Noon to 9 p.m. Sunday.

Prices: Appetizers, $5-$12. Soups and salads, $8.95-$15.95. Curries, $12. Noodle dishes, $9.95-$14.94. Specialty entrees, $9.95-$14. Desserts, $6.99. Noodle and stir-fry lunch specials, $8-$10.

Highlights: Thai fish cakes, green curry with chicken, red curry with roast duck, massaman curry with beef, pad see-ew with shrimp, pad kra prow with pork, and mango sticky rice.

Expect to pay: $18 (price per one person, does not include alcohol, tax or tip).

Notes: BYOB establishment.

What the rating means: The 10-point scale is an average of weighted scores for food, service, value, ambience and overall dining experience, with 10 being the best.

The Bottom Line: Little Thailand is back, serving fresh, rich, complex Thai dishes and warm hospitality.