Good Thai served with a smile

EATS

Dining For $25 Or Less

March 30, 2006|By KAREN NITKIN | KAREN NITKIN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Efforts have been made to gussy up this new Thai restaurant in a Perry Hall shopping center. The track lighting and shabby-looking chairs could make the space depressing, but colorful tapestries and stylized paintings of flowers go far to brighten the room.

But it's the smile of owner Bangone Khambay, who bustles around taking orders and filling water glasses, that makes Bouala's Thai Restaurant seem so sunny.

Khambay, who was born in Laos and lived in Thailand, opened her restaurant in Perry Hall because there are no other Thai restaurants nearby, she said. She lives in Springfield, Va., so the lack of competition must have been a pretty big draw.

But Bouala's offers enough charm and flavor to stand up to competition. The offerings rove across a familiar landscape of pad Thai and curries, delivering dishes that are fresh and comforting.

The menu is not lengthy, but it includes such classics as clams with sweet basil ($12.95), a red curry dish called panang ($10.95) and pad prew wahn ($10.95), which features a sweet-and-sour sauce. Khambay said she is hoping to get a license to serve beer and wine.

Thai cuisine, with its subtle combinations of sour, sweet and heat, was once considered exotic fare, especially in the suburbs. But it's becoming more commonplace as people discover that the tastes, though complex, are also deeply satisfying.

Bouala's, which opened in September, serves Thai food that is tasty though not particularly elegant. It's sort of a Thai version of a neighborhood Chinese restaurant, and it seems to do about as much takeout business as eat-in. Customers who eat in can experience the quiet atmosphere and gentle music.

Bouala's offers an extensive selection of curries, including massamam ($8.95), made with coconut milk and peanuts and served with a choice of meat or seafood, and large chunks of soft - but not falling apart - carrot and potatoes. The sauce had just a touch of heat to balance that sweetness - saving the dish from tasting too much like candy. The mildness of white-meat chicken also helped counter the high sugar content.

The pad Thai ($9.50) - probably the most-ordered dish in Thai restaurants - featured soft but not mushy noodles and still-crunchy bean sprouts. It was adorned with a generous handful of fat, beautifully charred shrimp, butterflied and served with the tails still on. Tasty as it was, this dish would have benefited from a touch more zing from more lime or crushed peanuts.

Duck noodle soup ($8.95) is a dish that no Marx Brothers fan can resist. Of course, it has nothing to do with the classic 1933 movie, Duck Soup, but turns out it also has nothing to do with duck. The soup, which features a rich, smoky broth, is made with slices of roast pork. But name aside, it was lovely, with tender meat and plenty of crunchy bean sprouts, plus scallions and cilantro.

We weren't overwhelmed by the appetizers. Pau pia taud ($3.95) is basically a spring roll stuffed with a savory blend of shredded cabbage, carrots, onions, chicken and shrimp. The exterior was so crispy that it flaked when bitten, but a pervasive greasiness kept this appetizer from being terrific.

And chicken satay ($4.95), coated with a mild blend of spices, was fairly uninteresting until it was dipped in peanut sauce.

Desserts at Bouala's include sticky rice with mango ($4.50) and crispy banana with ice cream ($4.50). We were told that the mango was not sweet enough, so the sticky rice wasn't being served. I like when servers tell you not to get something. It shows they care about what they are serving.

Khambay said the name of her restaurant refers to a lotus flower. It is also her mother's name, she said. The restaurant honors her mother in the nicest way possible - with good food served with a wonderful smile.

Bouala's Thai Restaurant

Where:

4347 Ebenezer Road, Perry Hall Square Shopping Center, Perry Hall

Call:

410-248-1099

Open:

Lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday, dinner only on Sunday

Credit cards:

All major

Prices:

Appetizers $2.95-$8.95, entrees $7.95-$14.95

Food:

*** (3 stars)

Service:

*** (3 stars)

Atmosphere:

*** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)

[Outstanding:**** Good:*** Fair or uneven:** Poor:*]

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