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Sunday, October 01, 2006

 

Some like it hotter


It used to be that the only place in Volcano Village on the Big Island of Hawaii that would be open late for dinner was Kilauea Lodge. So we'd make reservations on the day we planned to drive down to the coast to see red-hot lava flowing into the ocean. After witnessing new land being created before our very eyes we would humbly drive back and relax over a great meal.

But sometimes you can't get reservations at Kilauea Lodge since everyone else is doing the exact same thing. And it has gotten a bit pricey, though still a good value.

Now there is an alternative, and a tasty one too: Thai Thai Restaurant, just down Old Volcano Road from Kilauea Lodge.

As we learned on Oahu, it's important that the chef be from Thailand if you want an authentic Thai experience. No "Evil Jungle Prince" made-up dishes here. That's an Oahu invention, not a Thai dish.

We just had to have the Tom Yum soup (spicy lemongrass soup with shrimp or meat). We ordered with shrimp (Tom Yum Kung, spelling varies according to the restaurant). This is a dish that we would happily order any time of day in Bangkok. We once used our time at Bangkok Airport between our incoming flight from Rangoon and our outgoing flight to Tokyo to grab a taxi to a nearby hotel and order up some of this classic soup. But we're weird.

The problem with ordering it in the States is that it is a miracle if it is spicy enough. I don't know why it is that people like spicy food, but there are some dishes that just have to have that certain near-death kick to them. Tom Yum Kung is one of those for us. It is also our test of a Thai restaurant.

The menu at Thai Thai Restaurant offers the options mild, medium, hot, and Thai hot, so we asked for Thai hot. Thus began the negotiation. The chef explained that "Thai hot" was very hot. Maybe too hot. We said that we knew that, we've been to Thailand, we like it that way, please don't spare us at all, it's ok, and so forth. We're survivors. All the while I expected that the soup would be toned down to avoid trouble (two farangs [foreigners in Thai] screaming in pain or running out of the place or something similar). After all, it's safer for the restaurant to humor the poor souls who order "Thai hot" even if they claim they like it, because of course they likely never had it really "Thai hot." Why test the limits of a customer's endurance?

But after some talk and enough name dropping that we established our creds as Bangkok regulars, we did get a dish spicy enough (maybe 80% "Thai hot"?) which was flavorful as well.

Of course, "heat" is not the only measure of a dish. The flavor, aroma and texture should meld perfectly with the spice. And it's a plus if it reminds us of the similar dish we enjoyed in Thailand. This soup met our expectations.

We were eating lightly so we ordered Pad Sea Eaw (broad noodles stir-fried with Thai broccoli). This dish shouldn't be so hot. It was well-balanced and tasty.

We ended with chilled mango served with warm sticky rice in an ocean of coconut milk, another favorite.

We went back the next night to further explore the menu. We tried the Tay Poh Curry, a green curry with peanut sauce, and also garlic and pepper beef. More negotiation this time with the waitress who was a farang like us. Again, we prevailed.

As we dined, I noticed that this negotiation was common to almost all the diners who came in that evening--the discussion of how spicy the meal should be, the cautionary warnings, and the eventual determination of an appropriate spice level.

In truth, there is no mistake in ordering a dish less spicy than one can tolerate, or less spicy than one might have had in Thailand. Our Tay Poh Curry was not highly spiced, but spicy enough. It was outstanding, though we could have done with less coconut milk, a personal preference (Thai Thai imports their coconut milk, rice and some other ingredients directly from Thailand, we were told, and the greens are grown on their own farm). Next time we'll just ask for less coconut in the curry.

This raises a final point I'd like to make--the diner can express a preference in a Thai restaurant, though few seem to do that. This is one difference between eating in Thailand compared with eating in a restaurant in the States. For example, the cliche Green Papaya Salad, if ordered from a menu here, is prepared the way they always prepare it so that everyone gets the same thing. If ordered at a food stall in Bangkok, you get to say how sour or sweet or salty you like it, and can even taste a couple of times to check that the outcome will be just the way you want it.

We'll be back at Thai Thai Restaurant next trip to the Big Island, and we'll just ask for our curry with less coconut milk. And of course, we like things Thai hot.

After a day on the volcano, with all that steam, sulfur and lava being thrown around, the heat of the meal fit in perfectly. Somehow it seemed exactly right.


Thai Thai Restaurant
19-4084 Volcano Road
Volcano Village, HI 96785
(808) 967-7969
(open 5 p.m. till 9:30 p.m., last seating 8:30 p.m.)

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