No Chopsticks, Please

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Hank leans across the table.


"Chopsticks, dude. But not a word, okay? What does he know?"

"He knows how to insult a Thai," mutters Hank. "Like, he's never learned that Thais use spoons and forks, not chopsticks?"

"Look, no big deal."

"Bet her nose is out of joint."

"Tell you what: We'll ask the owner. Loser pays for this meal, okay?"

We sit staring at the ceiling, trying not to look at The Guy Who Asked For Chopsticks. Hank's brought me here because it's near the video place where he gets digital stuff for his job. Actually, the restaurant's cute. They have a small rose garden outside, plus ferns and plants inside, and two almost human-size manohras, I think they're called, mythological dancing ladies who are also birds, holding a gong between them with an incense burner at their feet. And whoa, great Thai friezes on the walls: historical scenes, hand-sewn, showing people growing silkworms and selling fruit at the floating market.

You'd never know this was once a Taco Bell. The long, dark-cushioned wall benches look classy, and chairs are solid, tropical wood. The tables have brownish linen tablecloths, glass on top, rosy-colored paper place mats on top of that. When the waitress comes, she brings nice heavy flatware and cloth napkins.

She also points out the special lunch menu. It does that Thai thing of charging the same for every dish, depending on what "meat" you put with it. So if you have vegetarian, or mock chicken, or mock duck, it's $5.95. Wow. Can't complain. That buys you, say, mock duck with green curry, coconut milk, eggplant, bamboo shoots, basil, peas, and carrots, plus fried veggie spring rolls, fried wonton, house salad, a pile of rice, and soup of the day. Same for massaman, the mild curry with potato, veggies, and peanuts in coconut sauce. Or panang curry. Or, like, pad see ew, rice noodles with broccoli, garlic, and egg. If you want real chicken or BBQ pork or beef or roast duck, it's a dollar more at $6.95; with calamari or shrimp, $7.95; with scallops, $8.95; and with assorted seafood, $10.95.

They have 20 lunch specials, plus two $8.95 chef's specials: ho mok, which is shrimp, green shell mussel, and calamari with veggies in a red curry sauce, plus rice and soup; and the "Flavor Thai Basket," jumbo shrimp and chicken on top of crispy noodles, with green peppers, cashew, and bamboo shoots.

Now another waiter comes up. Prakit. Hank's onto it before Prakit even twitches his pencil. "Number three, mixed vegetables, and scallops."

Well, waddaya know. Hank's getting adventurous. Of course, he'll pay $8.95 for the scallops privilege. For me, candidates are curry fried rice, panang (because of the sweet curry that comes with it), green curry (because it's mainly eggplant, say no more), and massaman curry.

Massaman wins because, okay, it's the potatoes. I just like them with curry, and the peanut and coconut sauce. I order it with roast duck ($6.95) to experiment a little. Of course, it's not gonna be spicy-hot. Down at the bottom they have the one-pepper, two-pepper, three-pepper heat code, and massaman doesn't even rate one.

First comes the soup, and hey: it's tom yam, my all-time favorite, hot, with lemon grass, mushrooms, onion and chili and lime. I love it when it comes with prawns in a charcoal firepot (I see that's $9.95 in the regular menu).

This comes in a bowl, but it's nice and spicy and full of flavor. Then the plates come. Big china ones, and man, mine looks so enticing. The wontons, the rolls, the orangey massaman curry in the middle with the veggies and duck pieces and peanuts, the salad with peanut sauce, and that snowy pile of rice. It tastes rich, in a sweet, coconutty way. I'd love to have a Singha beer with it, but instead I get a Thai condensed-milk coffee ($2.25).

At the last moment, Hank decides he needs more. He orders an appetizer of fresh spring rolls ($5.95). They come on an arty square plate, four of them, stuffed with lettuce, carrot, cucumber bits, and tofu. Hank gets a sweet-and-sour sauce, plus a peanut sauce. Not my thing, but Hank's happy. "Good fresh stuff," he says. "That's what counts."

"We don't make our food hot, because of American tastes," says Pachara Pongsamart, the gal at the cash register, when we go up to pay. She turns out to be the owner, along with her husband Prasert Noosaeng. "But just ask, and we make it as hot as you want. Like that massaman curry you had. 'Massaman' means 'Muslim,' and it's food of the Muslim south. They like it so-o-o hot."

"You gonna ask, or do I have to?" says Hank.

"We're arguing," I tell Pachara. "The guy next to us asked for chopsticks to eat his curry with. Is that an insult to Thais, or no biggie?"

Pachara laughs. "Well, we have been using spoons and forks since the present king's grandfather. But we're Thai! We're easygoing. We just want people to enjoy themselves. If that means giving them chopsticks, no problem!"

"A tie," I say.

"A Thai?" says Hank.

"No. The bet. It's a tie. Call it a Thai tie. So Dutch, right? Chop-chop."

"Stick it," Hank mumbles.

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