POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, May 18, 2011
Cuisines have always been subject to interpretation as they've traveled around the globe, so it's no surprise to find vast regional differences when traveling. Manhattan's General Tso's chicken is unknown here, and in China, for that matter. And the Thai curry Evil Jungle Prince is a Hawaii phenomenon, created by Keo Sananikone.
Within communities there are certain expectations. Here a teriyaki mentality prevails, with much of food saturated with a combination of sugar and shoyu, or salt. Just add fat and you got one winnah! Chefs who go against the grain run the risk of being misunderstood or having their food perceived as bland, so menus written in the same words and phrases, and food tends to develop a generic quality. That's not the case with Thai Herb Kitchen, which made me feel as if I'd stepped on a plane and landed somewhere else. This is another restaurant with a chef-owner in Japan, who traveled to Thailand and became enamored by its cuisine, spending years there in study. Through Thai Herb Kitchen he wanted to share the dishes of Isaan in northeastern Thailand, noted for its combination of spicy, sour and bitter flavors.
While we've grown accustomed to a contemporary, sedate and sophisticated aesthetic associated with the most recent spate of Japanese-owned restaurants, Thai Herb Kitchen's decor is cleverly deceiving, painted in vivid, bright green with a folk-art touch of flora. It has the look of a homespun mom-and-pop restaurant or natural-food store that's been part of the scenery forever, rather than something fresh and new. Its fussiness, so different from the prevailing clean and lean look, caught my eye one night as I was heading down Kapahulu Avenue toward Side Street Inn.
Inside Thai Herb Kitchen it feels as if you're in a scrapbook or photo album. It provides a wondrous eyeful of black-and-white images of Thai markets and scenery, a hand-drawn map lines an entire back wall and overhead there are tributes to Thailand's king.
READING the menu might make you feel as if you'd never been in a Thai restaurant before. That's because names of dishes are predominantly written in the Thai language, rather than English first. Even if you're familiar with some of the Thai words, they use spellings standardized elsewhere but not here. So our tom yum is their tom yam, our pad Thai is their pat Thai, and so on. It was easier to order by photo than reading through the menu. In trying to find the pat Thai (Thai fried noodles, $8.99), which wasn't pictured, I ordered yam Mama (noodle salad, $8.99), which looked like the right noodle dish but featured a curly instant-ramen noodle instead of the usual ribbony rice noodle. Oh well, it's always fun to explore rather than eating on autopilot.
This is probably not the place for newcomers to Thai cuisine. If you're familiar with local Thai cuisine, eating at Thai Herb Kitchen is sort of the equivalent of being a freshman in high school and skipping straight to college. Some might be content to simply drop out where they are. The food here is more potent, more intense than elsewhere, testing one's comfort level with lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and fish sauce.
I started with tom yam kung, the hot-sour spicy shrimp soup. It's nice to follow this dish with a heaping bowl of jasmine rice and red curry, $9.99. The creamy coconut milk in the curry helps to balance your palate, cutting the fiery, sour nature of the soup. After a while, tasting is almost moot. Your tongue will be overwhelmed by flavors of garlic, cilantro, basil, galangal, ginger and more.
Maybe because it's summer, the typical starter, spring rolls, wasn't on the menu. In its place are lighter summer rolls of fresh greens and shrimp in moistened rice paper wrappers.
There are a couple of versions of green papaya salad, one plain and one with shrimp, but if you're feeling adventurous, you might want to try the eggplant salad ($8.99), with thin slices marinated in chili oil and tossed with slivers of onion and cilantro.
A couple of meat dishes are bound to be favorites. One is the barbecue chicken, gai yang ($8.99). It's a sweeter, coriander-spiked, spicy version of a teriyaki barbecue chicken, slow-cooked till extremely tender, with a mild sweetness that's a welcome antidote for all the chilies you might have ingested up to this point.
And one of the restaurant's newest dishes is sour and spicy fried chunks of pork rib ($9.99) that are the Isaan answer, if drier, to pork adobo, with its garlicky, vinegary flavor. Dessert of Thai pumpkin custard was also a revelation. The custard filling is poured into a kabocha, steamed, chilled and then sliced into wedges. One serving is about a sixth or eighth of the kabocha. The whole assembly has the character of pumpkin pie with all the sturdy, nutritive qualities of the fruit itself!
Nadine Kam's restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Advertiser. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.