For some reason, the Little Rock metropolitan area simply cannot support an in-the-city Thai restaurant.
Leaving out the Thai kiosk in the River Market’s Ottenheimer Market Hall and a couple of pan-Asian and Asian-fusion menus, there are just three such restaurants hereabouts, all, comparatively speaking, on the fringes. Unless, of course, you happen to live on one of those fringes, in which they become “neighborhood.”
Thai Taste on Jacksonville’s Main Street is the only survivor of what used to be a three-way-Thai. Siam Kitchen closed many years ago, which is a saga we won’t elaborate on here. Chopsticks burned to the ground the same week we were planning to file an updated review. (Not our fault. Really.)
Lemongrass has done well on East McCain Avenue, just on the edge of the commercial sprawl on North Little Rock’s east side. It’s the closest to any Pulaski County downtown except Jacksonville’s, but it’s still a trek to get there from just about anywhere. (It’s also a lot fancier than its competitors and, consequently, charges higher prices.)
The third is Chang’s Thai & Asian, on Arkansas 107 way up on the north side of North Hills in a very unlikely spot, in a strip center dominated by a Subway sandwich shop (and that’s the best way to spot it if you’re looking for it).
It’s a mom-and-pop-and grandma place - grandma runs the cash register and takes care of the family’s next generation, a cute but occasionally rather noisy little toddler. (That turned off at least one diner who complained about it in an online review.)
We were astonished to realize it has been around for four years, but because it has been a little outside our normal trade route, we somehow had not gotten back up that way for quite some time after our original 2010 review. But the place has apparently thrived in our absence.
The buffet that dominated the dining room when Chang’s first opened is long gone; customers now order entirely off the menu. The initial emphasis on beautiful plate presentation is still intact when it comes to the appetizers, but has relaxed a bit when it comes to the entrees.
The restaurant has in the interim expanded into a third storefront to create a new, more generic but also more comfortable and elegant second dining room, with Formica-like tabletops framed by nicely red-padded wooden chairs.
The salt and pepper shakers on those tables are stylish and stylized, but not especially Asian - in contrast with the cute elephant-shaped ones in the “original” dining room.
That is a little homier but also has gotten a little shabbier. That’s easy to see because it’s so brightly lighted, in contrast with the dimmer new addition. The tables have glass tops over, not faux granite, but granite-pattern adhesive shelf paper that has replaced the white tablecloths with batik runners; seating is in generic black-padded cafeteria chairs. Unlike its area competitors, Chang’s decor is not swamped with Asian accents, but it does run heavily to elephants, all with trunks up, a good-luck symbol.
Each dining room has a flat-screen TV tuned to a cable channel but with the sound off; the sound system plays a variety of tunes, depending on somebody’s whim, from show tunes to uptempo Asian pop.
The food is still good. Both of our servers made it clear that anything can be spiced to taste - “3” is medium - and that heat levels also vary according to who’s doing the cooking (apparently one cook has a slightly heavier hand with the spices).
As was so when we first visited, most of the highlights of our meals were in the appetizers, not just because of the plate presentation but because they were consistently fresh-tasting.
To our intense disappointment, our favorite Chang’s item, the Meing Kham ($4.50), five betel-nut leaves topped with a pinch of fresh ginger, toasted coconut, roasted cashew, shallots, lime, dried shrimp and Thai chili with a tamarind-coconut sauce, wasn’t available because the leaves are out of season until later in the spring. Sigh.
So we headed directly for the Por-Pia-Sod ($1.60 apiece), a version of the Thai spring roll with a thin rice wrapper surrounding fresh organic baby spinach, basil, shrimp, bean sprouts, shredded carrots and thin rice noodles. The curved plate also carries a small bowl of a tangy-sweet vinegar-chopped peanut sauce (not unlike the Vietnamese “fish” sauce) for dipping. A pair of Por-Pia-Tod, “regular” fresh Thai spring rolls, is $1.95.
Gyoza ($3.75 for six) are Japanese, not Thai (that’s one of the menu items that fill the “Asian” part of the name) but they’re very appealing at Chang’s, thin, delicate pasta-like shells (which is how you differentiate them from Chinese pot stickers) filled with minced chicken and vegetables.You can get them steamed or crisp-pan-fried; we decided to go half and half. We got a bit of an unwelcome shock at the first dip into the vivid soy-garlic sauce because we hadn’t noticed the bits of hot red Thai and hotter green Thai peppers floating in it. Due caution, therefore, is warranted.
There’s nothing exceptional about the Tao-Hoo-Tod ($5.50), half a dozen wedges of deep fried tofu, but dunking them into the tangy, vermilion sweet and-sour sauce with a top layer of crushed peanuts transforms them into a taste treat.
Chang’s appetizer menu still doesn’t have any version of satay, grilled/skewered meat with a peanut dipping sauce. Although it’s listed as an appetizer, we got the Sesame Ball ($3.75 for eight), rice dough rolled into spheres around a sweet red-purple bean paste and heavily crusted with sesame seeds, for a to-go dessert. They’re fried up to order and were still warm after the lengthy trek back to our downtown Little Rock HQ.
Pad Thai, “the national dish of Thailand,” features flat rice noodles, stir-fried with choice of protein (beef, chicken or tofu, $2 extra for prawns, $3 extra for a beef-chicken-prawn combo, $4 extra for a seafood mix including mussels, prawns, squid and tilapia).
Chang’s serves it two ways: “Old Fashioned” ($7.99), stir fried and tossed onto a plate, and “Egg Wrap” ($9.59), like a great big Pad Thai omelet with everything nesting in a thin, yellow-brown, fried-egg shell. We enjoyed them both - the extra $4 for the seafood was a good investment for the Old Fashioned version, which we tried at a slightly fiery 4 heat level; the omelet version, which we had at “3,” was a bit more fun to eat.
We also went with a “3” for our Stir-Fried Squid ($8.99). We wouldn’t make a special trip for it, but if the squid pieces were done to just the right degree of tenderness (overcook squid, as we have often observed, and you might as well use it for garden hose), tossed with a variety of pale vegetables in a “sweet chili sauce” and served with rice.
Our server was right in recommending the Thai Beef Noodle Soup ($8.99), a rich broth-based concoction similar to a Vietnamese pho but with fewer vegetables, but with plenty of spongy meatballs, stewed beef, bean sprouts, scallions, cilantro and a hefty dose of roasted garlic. We ordered it at heat “2,” also at her recommendation, then added stuff from the “spice rack” she brought out - hot chili oil, the Thai version of fish sauce, crushed red pepper (not unlike what you’d get in a pizza place, but considerably more deserving of respect), green peppers in vinegar and even a little sugar for balance.
The spice rack was also useful in perking up the richly flavored Thai Chilli Fried Rice ($6.99), which tasted good when it got there but even better with a little tweaking. We had ours with chicken, but you can also choose beef or tofu, or, for incremental increases in price, prawns, squid or those same combinations that are optional for the Pad Thai.
The restaurant doesn’t serve alcohol (alas, because a lot of Thai food goes down better with beer), but they do a nice Thai iced tea that serves as a partial anodyne to the potential heartburn spicy food might cause.
Our servers were knowledgeable and helpful, and dishes came out of the kitchen fairly quickly, though on one occasion when the place wasn’t busy, we got our entrees right on top of our appetizers.
Chang’s Thai & Asian Cuisine Address: 9830 Arkansas 107, Sherwood Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 4-9 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 4-9 p.m. Saturday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday Cuisine: Mostly Thai Credit cards: V, MC, AE, D Alcoholic beverages: No Reservations: No Wheelchair accessible: Yes Carryout: Yes (501) 835-4488
Weekend, Pages 33 on 03/13/2014
Print Headline: Chang’s still worth trip for Thai