Thai Arroy is a sweet little restaurant, the kind a city can't have too many of. It isn't breaking new ground -- Baltimore's Thai restaurants all seem to fall into the homey neighborhood category -- but you can't help liking a place where the staff is so eager to please and the food is such a good value. Believe it or not, it's hard to spend more than $20 a person here, and for that you get a ton of food.
The Federal Hill storefront has been transformed into a festive little space whose focal point is a handsome Thai landscape along one exposed brick wall. The tables, dressed in colorful tablecloths, are close together, but the effect is cozy rather than claustrophobic. Thai Arroy is beginning to be a neighborhood hangout, with people who know each other doing some tablehopping. It's crowded in a good way, so you feel like you're at a happening place.
All this is very nice. The bad news is that once it gets cold, tables anywhere near the door will get a blast of icy air every time someone comes in. Also, the door doesn't close all the way automatically. I spent a lot of time reaching over to push it shut.
The large menu is nicely balanced between the old standbys like pad Thai and some more unusual choices like yellow curry with goat meat, fried potatoes and tomatoes. We didn't get a lot of advice from our waiter, but he was so efficient and friendly that we couldn't complain.
The only dishes labeled "specialties" on the menu are six duck choices. I would head straight for them. In pa-nang ped, slices of roast duck with an edge of crisp skin are involved in a complex interplay of snow peas, fresh basil and lime leaves and a silky coconut milk sauce. This is Thai food at its best, with nuanced flavors in spite of the heat. "Arroy mak" -- very delicious -- as my Thai-American friend would say.
Not all our dishes had this delicacy. Some tasted fine but had sauces that were a bit greasy. Some relied on the same basic vegetables, although we tried to order as differently as possible. If I had to generalize, I would say that this is home-style cooking that can be stunningly good -- as the duck dish was -- but more often is decent comfort food. And there's nothing wrong with that.
Only one dish was left almost untouched by our whole table. That was yum neua yang, flank steak with such a strong flavor even a jazzy sauce of fresh chiles and garlic couldn't disguise it. The steamed mussels on the half shell in the hoy-ob hot pot disappeared quickly, even though they were a bit overcooked, because their citrusy lemon grass sauce was so appealing.
If you're getting bored with pad Thai, try one of the other noodle dishes like guay teow lad na, a dish as comforting as mashed potatoes, with flat noodles in a light brown gravy, chicken, broccoli, carrots and baby corn.
Of all Asian cuisines, Thai desserts are my favorite, and Thai Arroy has quite a selection. It's hard to do any better than slices of fresh mango with sweet sticky rice, but the eggy custard is soothing and fried banana sections offer a soft, sweet crunch. Tiny bowls of Thai rice pudding are good when you want just a little sweetness to end the meal.
Thai Arroy doesn't have a liquor license, but you're welcome to bring your own wine or beer. The lack of a liquor license hasn't kept this small, friendly place from being packed night after night, so reservations are a good idea. Of course, the first time we called we were told they don't take reservations. When a friend called back to ask how early we would have to get there not to have a wait, they took our reservation, no problem. Go figure.
Thai Arroy Food: ** 1/2
Atmosphere: ** 1/2
Where: 1019 Light St., Federal Hill
Hours: Open for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday, Sunday for dinner only
Prices: Appetizers, $3.95-$7.95; main courses, $8.95-$14.95
Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *