The first Thai restaurant I went to was so good that over the years I've been reluctant to experiment with any other, especially when I'm not working. That's why I may be the only person in Baltimore who loves Thai food, but up until last week hadn't been to Thai Landing, which some aficionados consider the best Thai restaurant in town.
Let's call it a tie, no pun intended. At its best, Thai Landing offers elegant food, although it advertises itself as having "home-style cooking." Very little on the menu costs over $10; it's one of the best bargains around. Maybe "home-style" refers to the coziness of the small dining rooms, or the friendly staff who make you feel like family.
Like every good Thai restaurant I've been to, you can order randomly off the menu and your meal will be wonderful. Take something as ordinary-sounding as beef sauteed with oyster sauce. The tender slices of beef, bright green snow peas, fat little mushrooms and carrot slices were transformed by a delicate sauce that fairly sizzled with complex flavors.
Roast duck in green curry had all the heat you expect in Thai food, but under the fire were layers of tastes -- the smoothness of coconut milk, the zing of coriander. With the fat-free duck were tender-crisp, emerald green beans, the tiniest baby corn I've ever seen and seedless red grapes.
Even that old standby pad thai had a new twist. The rice noodles in their delicious peanut-flavored sauce were stir fried with bits of chicken; particularly surprising since we'd ordered shrimp. We were going to send the dish back, but once we tasted it we decided it was a keeper.
As for first courses, they weren't as uniformly outstanding. The chicken soup with an addictively good broth made with coconut milk was wonderful; but the beef sate wasn't the work of art it can be. It was garnished with quarters of white bread toast, the peanut sauce was dark and thick, and the cucumber salad was skimpy. Deep crispy rice turned out to be cubes of stuck-together puffed rice. You spoon a fine sauce of minced chicken, shrimp and coconut milk onto them, then eat with your fingers. Interesting but not to die for.
You'd do better to get your rice by ordering sticky rice and mango for dessert, a kind of Thai rice pudding made with sweet glutinous rice and served with lush slices of ripe mango. By American standards, Asian cuisines don't do much with desserts; but this one can be a fascinating interplay of flavors and textures.
Where: 1207 N. Charles St.
Hours: Tuesday to Thursday, 5-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5-10:30 p.m.
Credit cards accepted: MC, V
Features: Thai food
Non-smoking section? Yes
Call: (410) 727-1234
Prices: Appetizers, $3.50-$6.95; entrees, $6.95-$12.95