Murray » As much as we think of them as solely businesses, restaurants are living, breathing things. They evolve. They waver. They develop their own personalities with quirks and tics that endear us to them or deter us from getting to know them on a more personal level. And for those of us with favorites, we consider these restaurants (chefs, owners, servers and all) as much a part of our lives as good neighbors and friends would be.
That's the sentiment Thai Garden evokes in many diners. On any given day, during the rush for the affordable $6.95 combo meal, or on any night, regulars and neighborhood locals keep Thai Garden's pulse steady throughout economic booms and downturns. To be sure, Thai Garden has its hiccups. But its friendly mien, a few standout dishes such as its yellow curry and its presence in strip mall suburbia make it bearable to regulars and those experiencing it for the first time.
The dining area itself is one continuous space, broken up by a large tropical fish aquarium, tables and booths along the wall. Owner Vipada Barry softened the strip mall blandness with earth tones, Thai textiles and sound tracks. Chances are, she's the one who will seat you. After that, just about everyone on the service crew will stop by the table, filling water glasses, taking orders, bringing food and eventually, the tab. For all that face time, service was friendly, but flighty.
One of the most appealing things about Thai food is its visceral nature. Glistening platters of creamy red curry leave appetizing vapor trails. Stir-fries of ground pork and silky eggplant medallions sizzle when brought to the table. Crunchy morsels of fried salmon top a bed of greens in a bracingly tangy dressing. And of course, the piquancy of these dishes evokes corporeal reactions. We sweat, we sniffle, we eat.
Most items come with the option of mild, medium or hot levels. On other visits, curries have come out hotter than expected, which for me is a good thing. But the most recent experience, medium came out medium and no one really needed a Singha beer ($5) or Thai iced tea ($1.99) to extinguish any flames. If a beverage won't quell the heat, end the meal with smooth grains of Thai dessert sticky rice ($5.99). Creamy with coconut milk, it comes topped with fresh ripe mango (only when the kitchen has them) and dense, sweet Thai custard.
Tom kha gai ($3.50; $10.99) provides a gentler, but no less aromatic Thai experience. The classic Thai soup is redolent of lemongrass, lime leaves, galangal and a splash of lime juice. Mixed together by an experienced hand, they create an exotic and delicately balanced backdrop for strips of tender strips of chicken. The refreshing, rejuvenating broth is a favorite of spice wimps and freaks alike.
Despite its tropical heritage, a bowlful of Thai Garden's version could do wonders for those of us living in much colder and gloomier climes.
Noodle lovers, take note: Make sure you have the menu insert. When a server brought out a fat, squat bowl of nested noodles topped with a wonton and slices of barbecued pork to another table, I asked her what it was. She handed me the insert of noodle soup specialties Thai Garden now offers. Later outside, I noticed the footnote attached to Thai Garden's glowing marquis: "Noodle House."
For rice enthusiasts, there's yellow curry ($9.99) with chunks of tender boiling potatoes. A little wicker tub of sticky rice comes with a plate of nom tuk ($10.99), seared beef over sliced red onions, greens and herbs. It could be considered a refreshing take on a steak salad -- crunchy, bright and fully flavored. But the toasted rice powder that's added for texture was too toothsome against the tender beef.
One dish that needed more nuance was flat, wide-noodles ($9.99). The bland looking mound was silky in texture -- and that was about it. The same could be said of the fried banana dessert ($5.99). The accompanying coconut ice cream was refreshing and creamy, but the crunchy hot nuggets were devoid of the soft banana sweetness we expected.
At Thai Garden's price points, these missteps are forgivable. But they exemplify the inevitable truth about any restaurant's existence -- inconsistency. As living and breathing things, born from dreams and ambitions and dependent on many people, they are bound to waver. But so long as they keep up certain strengths (and Thai Garden does indeed have them) and a friendly face, regulars accept the bumpy ride as part of a dining adventure.
Bottom line » Affordable lunch combos, yellow curry and delicately scented tom kha gai (coconut chicken soup) are delicious and unexpected strip mall fare.
Location » 4410 S. 900 East, Murray; 801-266-7899
Hours » Monday to Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., 5 to 9 p.m.; Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.
Children's menu » No
Prices » $
Liquor » Beer and wine
Corkage » $10
Reservations » Large parties only
Takeout » Yes
Wheelchair access » Yes
Outdoor dining » No
On-site parking » Yes
Credit cards » All major