Thailand has been in the news of late, and for mostly the wrong reasons. Political instability has caught up with the “Land of Smiles,” and protests have become a daily occurrence there. Luckily for us, at least, Vegas is one of the best cities in this country in which to eat Thailand’s remarkable cuisine. So why book that 17-hour flight?
Thai Pepper, located next to the excellent India’s Oven in a mall at Paradise and Sahara, now belongs to a charming Thai woman whom we’ll call Cherry, so as not to attempt her real name, Sutima Sapayajeketarin.
On a first visit, I was blown away by the sheer size of Cherry’s menu. This lady is cooking a number of dishes that even her famous neighbor down the street, Lotus of Siam, is not. The downside is that this is no Lotus. If you’re looking for décor, or a wine list stocked with Rieslings and Gruner Veltliners, take it outside, buddy.
Oh, you might get a Singha beer or two, and the only swatches of décor are an American flag pasted to the wall and a framed portrait of Thailand’s long-serving monarch, King Bumiphol, who has been on the throne since Fidel Castro was a poor student in Havana.
- Thai Pepper
- 2226 Paradise Road. 696-9107.
- Open daily, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
- Suggested dishes: larb duck, $13.99; jan pad poo, $10.99; papaya salad with salty crab, $10.99; roasted duck curry, $14.95.
But all the dishes I tried here were interesting, and some were downright terrific. What I started with, a beef soup that I’ve never seen on a Thai menu in this country called kao-low, was funky in the extreme. And it’s definitely not for the faint of heart.
Served in one of those Thai aluminum pots with a Sterno in the center, the soup was stocked with meatballs, brisket, tendon and stomach, plus bean sprouts, cilantro and other herbs, all collaborating in a dark, rich, gamey broth. Four of us plowed through it, along with the rice—as fragrant as a rose garden—served on the side.
Then came another surprise, nam kao tod, or crispy rice salad, one of the most famous dishes at Lotus of Siam. There, the dish consists of toasted rice, homemade Thai sausage and lots of peanuts, green chili, ginger and lemon grass. This version is slightly different, with a more commercial-tasting sausage, and the peanuts conspicuously absent.
Still, the dish worked on many levels. The rice is crunchier than what you get at Lotus, and the flavors blend together nicely. I’d also give high marks to the duck larb here. This is another i-saan, or northeast Thai, dish, and our waitress recommended it highly. Cherry is from Bangkok, but she has an i-saan cook in her kitchen.
So what is larb? Well, it’s basically a finger food made from ground meat, whatever it may be, meaning pork, chicken, beef, duck or even shrimp, mixed with rice powder and several herbs and spices. Larb is eaten in the hollow of a cabbage leaf, taco-style. I like a sprinkle of prik nam pla, Thai fish sauce laced with hot chilies, on mine.
One off-menu dish I crave here is sup nor mai, slippery bamboo salad, served warm. It is another i-saan dish, as is som tam, raw green papaya salad with shrimp and crab, or the famous Thai barbecued chicken, here done properly on the bone and crusted with spices.
From the menu, make sure to try jan pad poo, pad Thai noodles laced with crab meat, a dish you can get on most Thai beaches. For the record, pad Thai is the name of a noodle rather than the name of the dish that it has become synonymous with. But Thais eat many noodles, including chow fun, pad see ew and kee mao, just as Italians have many pastas.
It may take several visits just to get a feel for how extensive Thai Pepper’s menu is, so here are a few other dishes to look for. Chinese ong choy salad makes good use of a Thai green they call pla poong, a hollow, reedy vegetable here deep-fried and served with Thai sauce made from ground pork, squid and shrimp.
Sweet and sour catfish and soft-shell crab with young pepper are musts, and from a list of curries, red, yellow, green and panang, the roasted duck in red curry is the most likely to get your attention.
All in all, there are 154 dishes on this multi-page menu, replete with color photos of many dishes. It’s a puzzlement, as King Rama IV sang in The King and I, how Cherry brings this all off. But brother, does she ever.