Baltimore's hot. Bangkok's hotter. Baltimore's humid. Bangkok's worse. Steamed crabs help beat the heat. So do hot peppers, fish sauce, ginger, garlic and Singha beer. Vis-a-vis "hot," one could do worse than go Thai.
The Thais have been living at high temperatures for more years than Marylanders, after all, and they also spend more months every year being hot. Here, the mercury can go over 90 any time from, say, May to September. Bangkok hits 90 and up from
March to October. To me, the cooling-off techniques of Thai cooking make sense: a. spices b. chilies c. lots of rice d. vegetables and fresh fruits e. coconut milk.
That's why, on a recent early evening, we rolled down the windows in the car, and headed for Columbia, traveling south on Route 29, and east on Route 108. To the north of the third traffic light, we found Bangkok Delight, just beyond the Columbia Palace movie theaters. At first, faced with two unpropitious, industrially thick, homely metal doors, we puzzled over how to get inside. After a walk around the building, which sits coolly in a suburban form of a green field, we got bold and pulled the knob of the door marked "Entrance." Silly us to have doubted.
The room was delightful. Though it must have begun as a dull factory shell, a myriad of upside-down-hanging umbrellas transformed it into theater: above, a dark ceiling of somber heating and cooling ducts; below, spotlights on bright circles of bamboo and translucent paper.
First off, our waiter sent off orders for our appetizers, so that we could drink Thai beers ($3 a bottle) and munch while we thought about entrees. We'd chosen a dish of "tod mun koong" ($5.75), or "minced shrimp kneaded with chili paste, deep fried and served with cucumber salad," and "por peah tod" ($3.95), or Thai spring roll. Thick as baking powder biscuits and the diameter of daisies, the four shrimp patties were juicy and likable. The accompanying cucumber slices lacked the succulence of cucumber cut a moment before, but the basic recipe tasted like a sound one: cucumber --ed with a mixture of vinegar, sugar and hot chilies, then pebbled with ground roasted peanuts.
Two Thai spring rolls, the shape of stubby carrots, were wrapped in a dough pale and thin as parchment paper. We thought the rolls marginally too wet with frying fat, but liked the pleasant stuffing of cabbage, carrot, ground meat and fungi. A dipping sauce was particularly good -- chilies in a clear liquid of vinegar and sugar.
For main courses, we settled on bete lovers special ($10.95), or sliced roast duckling, moo pad preow varn ($8.50), or stir-fried pork with a sweet and sour sauce, and a special of salmon in yellow curry sauce ($11.95). When our waiter brought them, he insisted we keep our utensils. "Keep your weapons!" he said. Are such economies worthwhile? We would have valued clean ones. (Incidentally, knives and forks are appropriate in a Thai restaurant; chopsticks are not part of the national tradition.)
The roast duckling, the least satisfying of the three, had been cooked earlier on and was tough and dry. The description in the menu -- "a special sauce of honey, garlic, black pepper and fresh ginger" -- read better than the real sauce tasted: bland and conventional. Stir-fried pork was better. Its sauce, too, lacked character, but the amiable combination of pineapple chunks, onion slices, chunks of green pepper, tomatoes and cucumber mixed well with the meat, which, we thought, had been poached or steamed, making the dish attractively light on oil.
The salmon special was the best of the three, with gentle, not overcooked salmon under a lovely mound of snow peas, carrot, broccoli, miniature Chinese ears of corn, and slices of zucchini. The Indian-influenced sauce, though somewhat too oily, had the warmth of cumin.
Our desserts were Thai custard ($2.25) and sticky rice and mango ($3.95). A simple, mild confection, Thai custard is a jiggling square of poached coconut milk, eggs and sugar, topped, at Bangkok Delight, with thin shreds of ginger cooked in syrup. At its best, sticky rice and mango is a bit of culinary genius: firm, sweet, lime-edged mango next to a mound of sweet sticky rice moistened with coconut milk lightly edged with salt. Bangkok Delight's mango was, for our taste, too soft and too sweet, like a timid version of sweet persimmon, but we enjoyed it even as a compromise, and as a reminder that finding a perfect mango is as problematic as choosing melons.
We left Bangkok Delight refreshed and soothed. There are more distinctive Thai restaurants in the Baltimore area, but none with such giddy, upside-down umbrellas. *
Next: Fells Point Cafe
Bangkok Delight, 8825 Centre Park Drive, Columbia, 730-0032
Hours: Mondays to Thursdays 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., Fridays 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Saturdays 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., Sundays 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Accepts: AMEX, Master Card, Visa
Features: Thai cooking
Smoking: Not allowed
Wheelchair access: Yes