Pad Thai? No, Bad Thai.
Like the attenuated Mexican cuisine in the magical realist novel Like Water for Chocolate, expertly handled Thai food seems to arouse certain predictable emotions to which no one is immune. I find, for example, that tangy, lemon grass-infused soup soothes away stress. A well-balanced curry, containing the precise amount of heat, can inspire a bit of passion. And a rich, heady peanut sauce? Joy, plain and simple.
But as is the way of such things, similar potions prepared by lesser hands can have the reverse effect. For instance, the bland tom kha gai concoction at Nakorn, located on Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood, created tension: Where was the spice (we ordered it medium; it was served with all the zing of dishwater), not to mention the aromatic galangal and lime leaves? The steamed shrimp curry dumpling, a pair of oddly textured turnovers stuffed with minced shrimp and boasting the consistency of an old towel, inspired nothing more than a desire to spit. As for the weak, insubstantial peanut sauce, well, "disgust" just about sums it up.
In fact, something about a lousy Thai food experience makes me almost inexplicably angry. Maybe it's because procuring a great massaman curry and a crunchy mee grob is an easy task in virtually any South Florida neighborhood: For every subpar Thai eatery, four superior ones just down the street can counter it. Or perhaps my irritation results from advertisements like the one Nakorn takes out, promising "the taste of Thai with style & originality," when the menu is so basic and utterly uninspired that it reads like Thai Food for Dummies.
Then again, perhaps I'm just honestly pissed off that starters like the fried tofu were more reminiscent of the sea sponges that my kids keep in their pet hermit-crab cages than they were of silky bean curd. Not to mention that they were served with a lackluster sweet-and-sour sauce instead of the billed peanut sauce, though in the end, neither could improve the triangles of dried-out honeycombs.
Other appetizers might not have aroused my ire, but they didn't do much for my ardor either. Shrimp in a blanket, deep-fried shrimp wrapped with bits of chicken in a crispy shell, were on the puny side but fresh enough. But the pineapple-chili sauce they were partnered with turned out to be a ramekin filled with the identical sweet-and-sour sauce that accompanied the fried tofu. Likewise, the fried won tons, stuffed with a combination of ground shrimp and chicken, and the squid rings, tender enough examples of fried calamari, arrived at the table not with their respective sweet chili and chili plum sauces but with the indistinguishable, all-purpose, duck sauce-type brew.
Only a tacky mee grob with a lone shrimp to feature had somewhat of a different flavor, thanks to its tamarind coating. Tiger tear didn't fare as well. Usually a jumble of zesty, marinated meat that has so much intensity, it gives the palate the equivalent of brain freeze, this version featured a tough, select-grade steak that had been broiled and barely sliced, then served with a chili-lime dressing on the side. Fortunately, portions in general were small -- which would have been a complaint had I actually wanted to feast on the foodstuffs.
I was similarly disinclined to overindulge in the main courses. Of the half-dozen or so that we sampled, only one, the duck curry, was a relative winner. Boneless deep-fried sections of duck meat had been paired with tomatoes, pineapple, and sweet basil, then dressed in a satisfying though hardly stunning red chili-coconut milk broth.
Other dishes lacked competence, or the recipes need adjustment -- or both, as none was spiced according to request but delivered dumb-American mild. Volcano chicken was flecked everywhere with apparent chili pepper particles but tasted more like bottled Tabasco that had been sitting on the shelf for too long and lost its spice. The honey-lemon sauce, one of seven you can order with your choice of chicken, beef, pork, shrimp, or squid, had notes of neither honey nor lemon; the garlic-ginger medley that dripped off a whole deep-fried snapper had little presence as well. The snapper itself, of a debatably legal size and a rip-off moneywise, was overcooked, the fish sticking to its skeleton with the determination of a crackhead to a pipe. Pad Thai was palatable, but we regretted ordering the vegetarian version, as it came adorned with the aforementioned wads of fried surgical cotton -- I mean, tofu -- and the tiniest pieces of broccoli and cauliflower I've ever seen. Clearly, Nakorn is not of the spare-no-vegetables camp.
To make matters worse, the absence of a liquor license makes it difficult to drown your palate, whatever your sorrows and complaints might be. You can order alcoholic beverages from the bar that adjoins the restaurant through a rear door -- incidentally, this is also how you must get to the rest room -- but be warned that the wine list is limited to a few mass-produced vintages, the beer selection is mostly domestic, and pallid margaritas are about as exotic as the drinks come.
If you can judge a restaurant solely on its décor, then Nakorn's saving graces are the bas-relief murals on the walls and the spare but elegant lines in the large, pleasantly lighted room. The restaurant used to be the barely mediocre Red Thai Room, and the remake wisely restrained from taking that scarlet color to its bosom. But as fare goes, it's pretty clear the Nakorn doesn't fall far from the tree.
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