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TASTE: A Menu the Size of Asia

Vegas' Thai House has no end of great dishes

By Max Jacobson 

Thai House Restaurant
9850 S. Maryland Parkway, Suite 18, 361-5233.
Hours: Sun.-Thu. 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
Suggested dishes: Papaya salad, $7.95; yai kee ma-ow, $8.95-$11.95; Thai barbecue chicken, $7.95; Thai House pork hock, $8.95.
Photo by Dash T. Himake

Don't confuse Thai House Restaurant in Southeast Las Vegas with another spot of the same name on Sunset Road in Henderson. This airy, spacious room, decorated with Thai artifacts and brightened further by cream-colored walls, was built from the ground up by Saithong and Marvin Tyner, who met in Thailand more than 30 years ago when Marvin was in the military.

Part of the charm here is the design, a mock-up Thai house facade over the register, and individual booths framed by Thai woodcraft. A golden Buddha statue presides over the center of the dining room. Food is brought to the tables on rolling carts, grandiose service for what is essentially a humble, neighborhood ethnic restaurant.

Well, perhaps not all that humble. "We try to make food here as close as possible to authentic Thai," says Saithong, who doubles as hostess and executive chef. She hails from the northeastern Thai province of I-sarn, close to Laos and Cambodia. I-sarn has given the West great authentic Thai dishes such as nuah dad deal, Thai beef jerky; the raw green-papaya salad known as som tam; and real Thai barbecue chicken on the bone.

Those three dishes make a good starting point for meals here. Most Thai restaurants in Vegas do a poor imitation of gai yang, the spice-crusted, turmeric-yellow chicken that is a good enough reason alone to visit Thailand. Saithong's meat is incredibly tender, redolent of spice and perfect astride som tam and sticky rice, served in a wrapped clump.

That meal is a drop in the bucket, though, as Thai House Restaurant has a gigantic menu of some 100 dishes spanning the entire Asian homeland. When you order, you are asked how spicy you want the dishes, on a scale of 1 to 10. My advice would be to go easy. You can always ask for prik nam pla—a hot, pepper-infused fish sauce—to heat things up, but once the chilies are in, you can't take them out.

A coworker told me about the menu's number N10, yai kee ma-ow: pan-fried rice noodles tossed around with mint and spicy chili, plus a choice of meats. The name means "drunken noodles" in Thai, since the dish is often made with rice wine—not the case here. Try the noodles with chopped chicken, or roast pork. For me, it easily surpasses pad Thai.

Thai beef jerky is really fried shards of beef, and I'd wait for the days when the kitchen makes the pureed green-pepper and tomato dipping sauce to accompany it. Thai fried-fish cakes, or tod mun, are golden orbs of boneless fish with a hefty dose of mint, served with a sweet-sour cucumber peanut sauce. One more starter I just can't do without are the stuffed fried chicken wings, made with a dense ground pork and glass-noodle stuffing.

Thai salads are justly famous, and among them, my favorite is the northeast dish known as larb: chopped meat mixed with rice powder, red onion, ginger and other spices. Here it is made with chicken, pork or beef, an ideal finger food typically eaten in hollow cabbage leaves, although Thai House uses lettuce.

Hot and spicy beef salad is grilled beef, surprisingly rare, mingling with red onion, lime and mint on a bed of lettuce, shot through with chilies. Nam thok, available upon request, is the I-sarn version of Thai beef salad, made with peanuts and other surprise additions. The aforementioned som tam is available either Thai (sweet) or Laos (salty and spicy) style. It is excellent either way.

Soups are another of the restaurant's strong suits. Marvin's favorite is tom kha gai, a chicken and lemon-grass soup enriched with coconut milk—Thailand's version of comfort food. I prefer white cabbage soup, a clear broth laced with ground pork, garlic and lots of vegetables.

There are several standouts among the entrees. Catfish can be had spicy deep-fried, or spicy pan-fried, and both are worth a shout. Thai House pork hock—tender meat in a sweet soy sauce with mustard greens and a runny boiled egg—is the ideal companion to fragrant jasmine rice. I'm also a fan of green beans in spicy sauce, which I like to order with jumbo shrimp.

Generally speaking, I'm not big on Asian desserts, but Thai House serves a few I like. One is the seasonal mango over sticky rice: glutinous rice with coconut cream, draped in strips of ripe mango. Another is young coconut with ice cream, also dependent on the seasons. Oh well, there is always coconut ice cream, but Baskin-Robbins does that, too.

The restaurant offers a host of lunch specials at $5.99, but beyond the well-traveled pad Thai and a spicy chicken with mint, most of the dishes are Chinese. We should count our blessings, anyway. Besides, there's always dinner.

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