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Dining

A (too) sweet time

The food rocks at Thai-themed Basil ‘n Lime, but you may want to tell them to leave the sugar off

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Pineapple fried rice.
Photo: Beverly Poppe

Sometimes, you don’t know whom to blame when you don’t get what you want at a restaurant. Was it the server, failing to communicate with the chef? Or was it the chef, who disregarded the server’s request?

I had two very different experiences at Basil ’n Lime, a charming newcomer on the west side, advertising “Authentic Thai Cuisine” on its outside sign. If you’re not Thai, you’re not a favorite to get much of it, even though the kitchen is capable of producing it. Many dishes here are loaded with sugar, above and beyond the sweetness imparted by coconut milk, common to many Thai concoctions.

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Restaurant Guide
Basil ’n Lime
3665 Fort Apache Road, 256-2581.
Open daily, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Suggested dishes: sun-dried beef stick, $7.95; papaya salad with crab and shrimp, $11.95; catfish chili sauce, $11.95; fried fish cake, $7.95.

Why are so many of these dishes sweet? According to our hip waiter, who actually seemed responsive to my pleas to have the sugar left out, “the previous owner liked it that way, and the cooks haven’t gotten around to changing them.”

Let it be known that I like this place, and plan to be back. It’s a large space, and the lime-green walls and rustic wooden beams add charm, even when the restaurant appears unfairly empty. Delicately framed Thai art is strewn throughout. The tacky “Take Out Orders” sign, posted above the cash register, needs to go.

A big plus here is the friendly staff, a welcoming crew that aims to please. It’s not for nothing that Thailand calls itself “Land of Smiles.”

But I’d rather get a scowl if I could be sure that the servers would listen to me when I tell them that I want my food Thai-style, not juiced up with sucrose. On my first visit, I brought a friend who has been very critical of my good nature in print, someone who accuses me of being too soft on local ethnic restaurants.

And maybe she’s right. I wanted to impress her, so I ordered dishes that I thought would live up to the authentic label. That day, we had a young lady taking our order, and she was attentive and accommodating. But even though I told her how we wanted our dishes, two of the four came out of the kitchen tasting like candy.

Fried fish cake, called tod mun on many local Thai menus, and larb chicken are both solidly dependable and reasonably authentic. The fish cakes have a pale orange hue and a mildly rubbery texture that some Westerners find strange. They are flecked with basil and springy to the touch. Thais usually eat them with a cucumber peanut relish.

Larb is ground meat mixed with rice powder and Thai herbs, and you eat it like a salad, or in the hollow of a cabbage leaf. It’s burning hot and addictively good, a northeast Thai dish that varies in hotness according to your specifications. That day, we also had pad see ew, fried rice noodles with egg and broccoli in a light soy sauce, and a curry, a coconut milk-based dish called mussamun shrimp, made with potato and peanut. This last one was too sweet to eat, and to her credit, the server had the kitchen re-do it.

On the return visit, though, our food was delicious from start to finish, possibly thanks to the communication skills of our waiter. We started with what the menu calls sun-dried beef stick, aka Thai beef jerky. The dish, a pile of charred twigs of beef, accompanied by a spicy, ruddy dipping sauce, is addictive.

Next came a simple but satisfying glass-noodle and ground-pork soup, a clear broth that had a clean taste, plus a variety of nicely cooked vegetables to give it body. The star dish of the day was catfish in chili sauce, normally, according to the waiter, loaded with sugar.

I asked for the dish Thai-style, and the result was amazing. The fish came lightly battered, not submerged in corn starch like in a mom-and-pop Chinese restaurant, and then sautéed in a rich sauce dominated by the contrasting flavors of sweet chili and fresh basil. It’s great when mixed with the house steamed rice, jasmine rice from Thailand that has an unmistakable perfume to each grain.

Later, I asked our waiter if the dish would have been sweeter had I not specified otherwise, and he said, “Oh, yes, much.” I may be beating a dead horse here, but I just do not get it.

That day, we also had som tam, Thailand’s famous raw green papaya salad, which is referred to only as papaya salad on this menu. Here again, we hurdled a roadblock when we asked our waiter if we could have it with shrimp or crab, the way Thais eat it. When we asked, the waiter told us that we could have both, for an additional $4, so we complied. Basil ’n Lime brines its own crab, and it is incredible, so by all means try it. The menu, of course, tells us nothing about this option, but then, that’s the M.O. here.

So despite their best efforts to keep me from coming back, I’m looking forward to my next visit here.

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