I can’t think of another cuisine that has seen such an insurgent rise locally as Thai. Remember a few years back – OK, it was more like 17 years ago – when it seemed every other restaurant opening was a pasta house? Thai must be the new Italian.
Most of the Thai restaurants share similarities. They’re small, casual, seemingly family-run and serve the same coterie of curries and peanut-sauced dishes. Presentations might best be described as pleasant but humble.
Tang’s, a new restaurant in the Marketplace at Dr. Phillips, offers many of the same dishes that other Thai restaurants do, but it does so differently. It has an ambience that while still small and intimate is also upscale and chic. And the food is decidedly more stylized and presented in an appealing fashion. As one of my dining companions remarked, it seems more French than Thai.
That of course is meant as a compliment, a recognition that food often though of as simple could be seen as haute cuisine.
Which is not to say Tang’s is pretentious. It is not. But a meal here can be every bit as special as one in a so-called gourmet restaurant, and just as satisfying, too.
Laab chicken ($9) was a favorite appetizer. It feaured nuggets of chopped chicken, poached, and tossed with tangy red onions, cool mint and toasted jasmine rice and was served with slender leaves of romaine lettuce to make a sort of wrap. Sweetness, spice and a watery crunch from the lettuce.
Fresh basil rolls ($8) were summer rolls of translucent rice paper packed with Thai basil, vermicelli noodles and poached shrimp served with a hoisin reduction sauce.
I also liked the barbecue beef skirt ($14), marinated skirt steak imbued with garlic and shiitake soy sauce. Tender and delicious.
Short ribs massaman ($24) were a favorite entrée. It featured tender braised beef sautted with a sweet chili paste with peanuts and tamarind and finished with a creamy coconut milk.
Penang curry ($22) was also good. Usually served with chicken or beef, Tang’s gives a choice of salmon or shrimp. I chose salmon, a very nicely cooked and moist fillet that held up surprisingly well to the spiciness of the Penang. True, I had requested the curry medium-hot, but it still had a spicy factor. And although it was spicy, the complexity of the layered flavors of chilies, kaffir lime leaves, onions, sweet coconut milk and ginger still came through. This dish, like several others, also features sticks of vegetables, including zucchini, carrots and red bell peppers, which were sauteed al dente and notable for their freshness.
I had hoped for some creative twist on the lowly pad Thai ($16), the putative national dish of rice noodles tossed with shallots, bean sprouts and peantus. But it was fairly mundane although executed well enough.
Pla lad prig ($29), usually presented as a whole fish, here is a fillet. Wahoo was the featured fish on one of my visits. It was pan-seared and ladled with a sweet chili sauce tinged with garlic and accompanied by cherry tomatoes and red bell peppers. I thought the wahoo was a tad overcooked, but my guests all enjoyed it and voted it their favorite.
Rice was offered by the manager from a large bowl that was divided down the middle by a lettuce leaf. On one side was the usual fluffy white jasmine rice, but on the other side was a rice blended with freshly chopped basil for an herby touch.
For dessert I liked the banana spring rolls ($7), which had big hunks of the fruit deep-fried in sweet pastry.
Tang’s occupies a small space. Two walls sport banquettes with tall cushions while the center of the room has tables with slender-backed leather chairs. The walls have touches of small tiles, and colorful glass pendants hang over the tables giving off a moody glow.
Service was attentive and polite. There is a wine list with several good by-the-glass choices. It’s rare that I want anything other than a Singha beer to go with my Thai food.
But then Tang’s just isn’t your typical Thai. It doesn’t take anything away from the other good Thai restaurant in the area – I’m happy to have them all and look forward to those still to come – but it adds another dimension of dining and takes Thai to a higher level.