Over the years I have learned never to let looks deceive me. As a matter of fact, when it comes to ethnic cuisine, it is often the not-so-glamorous places – those attached to grocery stores or in long-vacant spaces that are the only options for the hard-working immigrant owners as they start chasing their American dream – that have the most authentic and delicious offerings.
So when I walked into Bangkok Bistro, my expectations were tepid at best. But the transformation of what was once the Bagel Station in a hidden strip mall along East State Boulevard was stunning. It was sleek, modern and as elegant as any new restaurant I have visited recently – almost so elegant I felt underdressed, even though it is a casual place.
The menu at this Thai fusion restaurant is huge, which also raises my suspicions, but with the guidance of a familiar face from an old favorite – longtime Saigon server Ashley (Chanthaly is her given name), who has been at the bistro for just a couple of months – I was able to find some fantastic dishes that more than made up for a few dumbed-down fusion flops.
The look deceived me when it came to my first taste from Bangkok Bistro, the Crab Mandalay. A twist on the Chinese staple Crab Rangoon, they were very small – about the size of a wonton – and I was doing price-calculating in my head before I ate the first one. But these fried morsels were made with rice paper instead of the egg wrappings of Rangoon, so they puffed up in the fryer, making them light and airy as well as crisp. It was also refreshing to see that the cream cheese filling was markedly pink from the copious amount of imitation crab.
The Calamari was also a winner. It was fried in a rice batter so, like the Mandalay, it had a lighter-than-the-normal crispy exterior, and the pieces of squid were cooked perfectly, which is a feat many places struggle with. Whole Thai basil leaves were mixed in among the calamari rings, and though they added little in terms of big flavor, they lifted the dish above the norm visually.
Both of those appetizers came with two dipping sauces – a standard sweet chili and a darker Thai barbecue. They were fine and I could not pick a favorite. When I dipped a piece of Mandalay into both, I discovered my favorite was a mix of the two.
Though not technically an appetizer, the Glass Noodles Salad proved to be a good one when split with a dining companion. There were seven big, plump tail-on shrimp dressed in a bright lime vinaigrette, and it brought plenty of heat – I ordered it hot – thanks to all the diced Thai chilies included with the clear noodles, onions, tomatoes and peanuts.
The heat was quelled by my Thai iced coffee, which fit the motif in a modern, eye-catching cubed glass with a narrow top. Thai tea was also available, but there was a drink that I enjoyed more – the Cosmic Haze. The same nifty glass was filled mostly with a dark purple elixir with a nearly two-inch layer of lime juice, which Ashley said she had to squeeze fresh. The first sip from my straw was icky sweet and gave me no hints as to what the “secret blue potion” was. Once I mixed the lime juice in, the drink changed completely and was deliciously sweet and tart.
The most interesting entrée did not impress as much. The Heavenly Jerky consisted of beef pieces that did look like good ol' beef jerky, and its texture was similar. That left me confused as to whether it was good because it was, indeed, like jerky, or bad, because it was much like dry, overcooked beef. One thing I wasn't confused about was that I would not order it again.
When I ordered the Mango Curry with pork, I feared dry overcooked meat because pork is always a risk in stewed dishes. But the pork in this dish was super tender, succulent and surprisingly juicy. I would order it again or at least order pork again in another dish. The curry was simple with just mango pieces, onions, bell peppers and Thai basil in its silky coconut milk-based sauce, but it was executed well with just the right level of heat.
The Raging Sea soup also had the right level of heat – Thai hot in this case – and it was packed with calamari, shrimp and mussels and had a whole fillet of breaded and fried fish floating on top. It also had Shimeji mushrooms, shallots, cilantro, culantro, lemon grass, kaffir lime, basil, diced Thai chiles and galangal in its broth. All the seafood was perfectly cooked and the breading on the fish held up well, considering it was in broth.
The broth was hot but had no complexity or real flavor of its own, and the big discs of inedible galangal and tough uncooked culantro leaves were problematic.
Complexity was the key to the success of the Shrimp Tomalley Fried Rice, which packed the same punch of spice as the soup. But the dark-colored rice was charred well in the wok and provided that toasty-good flavor you want in fried rice. The addition of the shrimp tomalley – a paste made from the innards of the head and body of a shrimp – gave each bite a funky, fishy (but delicious) flavor that made it like no other fried rice I have had in this area.
The biggest fusion flop at Bangkok Thai was the ramen. Like the curry, it was simple with just noodles, seaweed paper, a soft-boiled egg and soy-braised pork belly. It was offered with pork bone broth, which I chose, or a soy sauce-based broth.
Given it had so few ingredients, and given the pork belly was just one paper-thin round about the diameter of a tennis ball, the broth would have to provide a lot of flavor to make this dish shine. It didn't, which made it quite dull. It would have been helped by condiments such as chili oil, sriracha, herbs, a lime wedge or even soy sauce, given the soy flavor was not present on the pork.
Luckily, Ashley saved the day after the disappointing noodles by suggesting I finish my meal with mango sticky rice before I could even ask what dessert options Bangkok Bistro offered.
It was perfect, with fruit just a shade below totally ripe to offset the super-sweet, condensed milk-soaked rice. It was the kind of suggestion that renewed my faith in the restaurant and all but guaranteed I will go back.
Restaurant: Bangkok Bistro
Address: 3009 E. State Blvd.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 4 to 9 p.m. Sunday and Tuesday through Saturday
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Credit cards: Yes
Menu: Crab Mandalay ($5), Calamari ($8), Glass Noodles Salad ($13), Shrimp Tomalley Fried Rice ($14), Mango Curry ($13), Ramen ($12), Raging Sea ($16), Heavenly Jerky ($12), Cosmic Haze ($4), mango sticky rice ($6)
Rating breakdown: Food: ★½ (3-star maximum); atmosphere: ★ (1 maximum), service: ★ (1 maximum)
Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org; call at 461-8130. DuVall's past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette. net. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @DiningOutDuVall.