Dining out: Oodles of reasons to slurp it all up
All around me, it was eerily quiet. Thai Garden & Noodle House was full, but even throughout the conversations and the footsteps of the amiable servers, there was a void that should've been filled. I saw bowls of noodles (nested in broth or naked with cilantro) being ceremoniously consumed without so much as a slurp or a sound.
I did my best to make up for everyone else's politeness. Noodles, be they made of egg, wheat flour or rice, are one of those foods that, culturally speaking, offer carte blanche for diners to make noises usually considered a faux pas.
So, with a pair of oversized bright orange chopsticks, I attached the tangled mess of deep yellow egg noodles (N8 on the menu, Ba mee num moo dang $7). Their tight crimps were loosened in the hot broth and caught in pieces of cilantro, sliced barbecue pork and green onions. I put one end of the noodle strand in my mouth and proceeded to make enough noise to make any food-loving Asian grandparent proud.
The noodles were nicely cooked and the broth was cleansing, if a bit innocuous. But a touch of the dried red chili and some of the freshly pickled green chilies served on a condiment caddy gussied it up, and the subsequent heat beckoned me to take in more noodles.
Whatever debate exists about noodles' origins, the humble mixture of flour and water have come a long way. And they hold a special place on Thai Garden & Noodle House's menu. A few are good and perfect for this wavering season of sunshine and cold. But noodles in other guises elsewhere on the menu generally hold more promise in flavor and texture.
My experience tasting other noodle menu offerings (N1-N9) varied wildly, even in one sitting among a group of friends who tried to share. The "N" offerings come either with or without broth, and you're better off with. In general, flat noodles were always a disappointment. But rice noodles might appeal to those already in love with Vietnamese pho, while the egg noodles hold universal appeal.
Out of all the meat offerings, the barbecue pork offers the most flavor. Otherwise, it's a crap shoot as to whether the pork, chicken or beef will come out tender and flavorful or tough and bland.
Generally speaking, the menu of Thai curry classics and appetizers offers the same odds of satisfaction. Curry puffs ($7) are flaky and mild enough for Thai neophytes. Perfectly good soups like the bright and spicy tom yum ($5, $6) or creamy and demure tom kha ($5, $6) are best with the mild, succulent shrimp.
If the panang curry ($11, $13) is a bit too hot, order a bottle of one of the local microbrews -- that's in lieu of the wine menu that's small and uninteresting. Heat levels here tend to be more mild than not, and servers will explain how hot medium is, or the differences between the noodle soups and curries. Their friendly demeanor allowed me to forgive their harried nature when large groups arrived on a weekend.
As much as I enjoyed the egg noodle soup with barbecue pork, the most surprising and pleasant tastes of Thai Garden meals came from dishes that other Thai restaurants prepare without much thought. Not so here. Fried spring rolls ( por pia tod , $5) are vegetarian but have a lovely depth of flavor from the julienned shiitake mushrooms tumbled within the well-seasoned glass noodles. And the frying was perfect, resulting in a shattering skin that crunched while the noodles mushed.
And the very popular, but overworked pad Thai gets a new spring in its step in Thai Garden's kitchen. The dish was inherently spicy, the server explained, and I was served a huge mass of flat rice noodles coated in a red-orange sheen. The noodles were cooked to an ideal stage and blended with a not-too-sweet sauce, cilantro, bean sprouts and plenty of shrimp and stir-fried egg. The texture and temperature was simple and delicious.
I suggest you tackle this noodle mass with a fork as much as you might want to impress your friends with your dexterity. You'll have much better luck getting the slippery things off the plate and into your mouth. And yes, by all means, do slurp.
Basic Thai flavors in a popular neighborhood. Noodle dishes abound but egg noodles tend to be sturdiest and most delicious in broth with barbecue pork slices. Fried spring rolls are wonderfully flavorful and Thai sticky rice is a treat.
Location » 868 E. 900 South, Salt Lake City; 801-355-8899
Hours » Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., 5 to 9:30 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., 5 to 10:30 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 3 p.m., 5 to 10:30 p.m.; Sunday, 5 to 9:30 p.m.
Children's menu » No
Prices » $$
Liquor » Beer and wine
Corkage » $10
Reservations » None
Takeout » Yes
Wheelchair access » Yes
Outdoor dining » No
On-site parking » No
Credit cards » All major