Once upon a time, there were three Thai restaurants in Jacksonville. And because there were no Thai restaurants elsewhere in the metropolitan area, if you wanted Thai food, you drove to Jacksonville.
Two of those Thai restaurants have since disappeared. (There was the mom-and-pop Siam Kitchen, which went under not long after mom and pop broke up. And Chopsticks, a converted Chinese establishment, burned to the ground one night in 2004.)
But Thai Taste, on West Main Street (just on your right after you exit at Main Street from U.S. 67/167), has not only survived but thrived.
It is a matter of some puzzlement why, aside from a Thai kiosk in the River Market, Little Rock has not managed to support a Thai restaurant. The two others currently in operation are on or near the fringes of metropolitan dining civilization - Chang Thai & Asian Cuisine on Arkansas 107, north of North Hills, and Lemongrass Asian Bistro on East McCain Boulevard.
So if it takes a bit of a road trip to satisfy a craving for Thai food, and since widening 67/167 to three lanes has made the trip less arduous, it’s more than ever worth the drive to Jacksonville.
You won’t find much glamour, outside or inside, at Thai Taste. It’s on the left-hand side of the one-way street, in a small brick building next door to a much showier, newer fast-food chicken outlet. The sign has faded a bit since our last visit and the interior has grown a little shabbier, especially noticeable in the peeling linoleum around the buffet, which occupies one half of the L-shaped seating area.
There’s some elegance in the maroon and gold marching elephant tablecloths, and in the wall portraits of members of the Thai royal family. For the very first time, we noticed the light fixtures, which now feature curlicue CFL bulbs with traditional Thai straw-hat-style shades.
There’s also a certain homeyness about the restaurant, in part because it, too, is a mom-and-pop operation (mom’s in the kitchen, pop’s at the cash register and their small son is usually occupying himself at one of the tables with a passel of toys and a video screen). And a good many of the patrons are regulars, so they greet the staff and each other by name.
Speaking of the buffet ($7.89 lunch, $8.89 dinner), one visit cemented our long-standing opinion that you avoid it and stick with the menu. It’s acceptable if you are a) either completely unfamiliar with Thai food and you need a primer, b) you’re extraordinarily hungry or c) you’re a big fan of low-common-denominator Asian buffets.
Of course, there is the Thursday-Saturday “all you can eat seafood bar,” i.e., all you can eat crab legs, $23.99 with the buffet, $12.99 a pound for just the crab legs. Assuming you can eat more than a pound of crab legs, that’s actually a bargain and you don’t have to eat much off the buffet to qualify. The crab legs are as good as, or maybe even better than, you’ll find in the area, and, of course, just as messy to eat. Luckily our waitress kept us well supplied with store-bought napkins.
The printed menus are also showing their age. Rather than reprint them at who knows what cost, the owners have chosen instead to mark the price changes by hand with a smeary marker. But the photos are still bright and surprisingly accurate depictions of what you’re likely to see on your plate.
Unlike many Asian places, you can’t gauge the spice level by the number of stars or stylized peppers. Nor do you need to. The menu lists, with a single asterisk, the dishes that are likely to be spicy, but the waitress always asks how you’d like it spiced, even if it isn’t supposed to be spicy, on a numerical scale. Medium is 5, so you know pretty much that anything higher than that is going to be pretty darn hot. Dishes we asked for at 3-4 came out spiced exactly as we wanted them - enough to tingle the tongue without causing third-degree burns to the palate.
Since it had been awhile since we’d been to Thai Taste, we stuck pretty much with tried-and-true items, and were not disappointed. We recommend opening with the Fresh Spring Rolls (two for $3), thin rice paper wrapped around dark green lettuce, shredded carrots and shrimp and served cold, with a thin peanut-vinegar dipping sauce that we just couldn’t get enough of.
Or start with the Pork Satay ($5), five skewers of tender grilled pork lightly slathered in a pleasantly spicy peanut sauce, with a bowl of the slightly gelatinous stuff on the plate for additional dipping, just about the right balance between sweet and spicy.
You’ll find Phat Thai ($7.89, chicken or beef) in the noodle category, but if you want it with tofu (also $7.89), look among the “vegetables”; to get Phat Thai Shrimp ($8.89) or the Phat Thai Combo ($9.89), you’ll have to go to “seafood.”
Our Phat Thai Combo came with narrow rice noodles (you’ll see it in some places with noodles wide enough to be fettuccine), stir-fried in a rich brown sauce with generous amounts chicken and beef; the grilled shrimp come on the side and the bean sprouts, green onions and bits of fried egg on top, for you to mix in. Although there were some few bits of chopped peanut in the sauce, we missed having extra chopped peanuts on top or on the side. Spicing it to level 3 kept the dish interesting right through next-day’s-leftovers for lunch.
And we thoroughly enjoyed our Beef Panang ($8.89; chicken is also an option), spiced perfectly for us at level 4 (though this is a dish some may enjoy infernally hot). The pieces of beef, with a couple of chewy exceptions, were mostly tender; there was plenty of sauce, with substantial flavors of curry and coconut-milk as well as the peppers, plus some basil (edible) and lime leaves (inedible) for accent. It’s served with a generous hemisphere of rice, which helped tamp down even the minimal hotness. A $1.89 Thai iced tea is another good anodyne if you’ve set your tongue ablaze.
Though Thai food, like most southern Asian cuisines, goes excellently well with beer, you can’t get any here - Jacksonville is local-option dry.
Service was good though a bit slow, mostly because there’s only a single waitress on the floor weeknights (having a second waiter on Saturday didn’t help a whole lot).
Thai Taste Address: 1516 W. Main St., Jacksonville Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Monday-Friday, 4-9 p.m.
Saturday Cuisine: Thai Credit cards: V, MC, AE, D Alcoholic beverages: None (Jacksonville is dry) Reservations: Large parties Wheelchair accessible: Requires negotiating a small step at the front door Carryout: Yes (501) 985-1854
Weekend, Pages 31 on 04/04/2013
Print Headline: Thai Taste a spicy, savory trip