Tag Archives: Thai food

Montgomery’s Best Red Curry

Depending on where you are in the world, people mean different things when they say “curry.” The word “curry” is from Tamil, basically meaning “sauce.” Indian “curries” may or may not actually have much in the way of sauce, but often use a blend of spices that is sometimes called curry powder that may or may not contain some combination of coriander, cumin and tumeric. Usually spicy bits like fresh or dried peppers are added separately. In Japan, the stuff they call curry is largely a disgusting brown goo draped over meats on rice. It is related to Indian curry in the same way that Corey Feldman and Sir Alec Guiness are both actors.

And then there’s Thai curry, the subject of this particular post. In a Thai restaurant, when you order a curry you can usually expect to receive some combination of ingredients with a savory sauce. The sauce is made from a curry paste and liquids that might include coconut milk, stock, fish sauce, soy sauce and assorted other goodies. There are a few staples, including yellow curry, green curry, red curry, Massaman curry and Panang curry. Their difference is less about the things that get “curried” (although Massaman usually has sweet potatoes or some kind of starch) and more about what’s in the paste. We like all these kinds, but we are partial to red curry. It’s usually more spicy than the others (with the exception of Panang) and tastes richer to me somehow. So we wanted to see where Montgomery’s best red curry might be. And we went on a lunch adventure.

Lek's. The worst of the three.

First stop: Lek’s Railroad Thai. It’s a nice spot, for sure – used to be the main place we’d go for vegetarian food here in Montgomery before we lived here. The decor is nice, the train station is pretty awesome, and it’s easily walkable from downtown. Plus they are really fast at serving what can be a very substantial lunch crowd (even though they may be the only restaurant in town without an obvious system to distinguish between the sweet and unsweet tea and tea pitchers). The lunch specials include a spring roll (pretty good), some soup (didn’t eat it, full of chicken), and your choice of a few items. The red curry costs a few dollars extra for tofu, which is pretty wack – it’s not like you’re getting shrimp or something, but it comes out fast. But it’s just not very good. You get a generous set of tofu pieces, cooked to a medium consistency, topped with a smattering of bell peppers, with a scoop of rice and a fan of cucumber slices. Over the tofu, the curry tastes cloying yet thin, like some canned coconut milk that heard a rumor of curry nearby but only got a passing whiff. It’s lacking all of the depth and flavor of Thai food, coming closer to the overly sweet Americanized “Chinese” food that they serve at horrible places like Ming’s Garden.

Next stop: Ala Thai (Midtown). There are two Ala Thais, but we only really go to this one because it’s closer to our house and reachable for a work lunch. Like Lek’s they can rock a slammed restaurant for lunch. We’ve rolled in with huge parties and gotten out with fabulous food and good service in shockingly good time. There’s lots of good stuff on the menu, and they’ll make it as hot as you want. This particular day, though, we were only interested in the red curry. Which did not cost extra for tofu but which came with either noodles or rice. We chose the rice. When the curry arrived you could have smelled it all the way over in the Shoe Circus, or whatever other awful stores they have in that mega-complex. It was spicy and sweet and deeply flavored, generously soaking in a lot of sauce that ended up merging perfectly with rice progressively ladled into the bowl. There were a number of vegetables, but not so much that it detracted from the perfectly cooked tofu.

Green Papaya. Decidedly meh.

Third stop: Green Papaya. We have been meaning to go here for the three years we’ve lived in Montgomery. Now we’ve gone, we’re not sure when or if we’ll be back. The red curry is basically a bunch of deep fried tofu mixed with what seems like pre-bagged veggie stir fry¬† mix (you know, little slivers of red pepper, tiny broccoli florettes, flat and vaguely scalloped carrot wedges). It is not especially savory or unique, making up for flavor by using a full-fat coconut milk. At least the “medium” is spicy (at Lek’s, “medium” seems to mean “insipid), and the the “hot” is sweat-inducingly hot. But it’s generic, and boring, and, well…you could do much better on your own.

Speaking of on your own, I want to say how easy it is to make your own red curry at home. You don’t need to make your own red curry paste from scratch (though I have, and it isn’t hard) – the Taste of Thai stuff they have in the little jars in the “Asian” section at Publix will do perfectly well. I do mine in a wok, but you could just use a big saucepan. With tofu, you press it first, slice it thin, and brown it in a little oil (I like peanut). Take it out and keep reserved. Then a little more peanut oil, and fry several teaspoons of the red curry paste till you can really smell it. Add in onions and whatever veggies you’re going to use. Then coconut milk (I like the light stuff) and some stock, depending on how soupy you want it to be. Add in equal parts brown sugar, fish sauce (there’s some vegan options for this, or you can just omit) and soy sauce. You may want more soy sauce after. Cook it down. The end. Good with some lime juice squeezed at the table and maybe some toasted peanuts to top.

Thai Gratiem

It’s always nice when your anticipation pays off. In this case, we had been looking forward to going to Thai Gratiem for quite some time. The problem is — as you know if you read this blog regularly — we hate the East Side of Montgomery. So we try to go over there as rarely as possible. From the traffic to the soulless big box stores to the white flight to the contempt for the rest of the city, it represents everything bad about urban sprawl.

Still, there are some diamonds in the rough and we had heard that Thai Gratiem was one of them. The rumors were true.

“Gratiem” means garlic, but it seems that the three-year old restaurant just picked it because they thought it sounds cool. There’s not a major garlic theme to the place or anything. The place is in a generic looking strip mall (near a gun store and the usual array of genero-national branded shops) and it takes a while to get there from our house, but it’s worth it. This is a lot, considering that the restaurant is on the far end of the Hellscape, near Chantilly Parkway just before you end up most of the way to Union Springs.

The inside is well decorated. We had the entire place to ourselves on a recent lunch, but that may have been due as much to the freezing weather as anything. It’s small and just above strip mall-ish inside, but they have hung some nice decorations and some huge televisions that (thankfully) weren’t all on and blaring. The rant about the proliferation of big screen televisions into restaurants will be saved for another day.

The service was obviously attentive since we were the sole customers. The menu had a ton of options — all reasonably priced — and there was a separate VERY impressive list of teas and coffees. It is by far the best such list we have seen in this state. No liquor license though, which one of our guests made a little bit too big of a deal about. Booze isn’t a vital part of what we were looking for (at least at this lunch), but the folks said that the license was on the way and we’re sure they will be happy to be able to be able to sell liquor ASAP.

We did it big at our lunch. We ended up with four appetizers and they were all impressive. We didn’t try the chicken coconut soup, but it was well-reviewed by a member of our group. The spicy shrimp soup was fantastic and could make a satisfactory entree in sufficient amounts. Really tasty and perfect on a cold day. The soups were larger than expected given that they were described as “small bowls.” They were also served with white rice.

The “rice paper rolls” were more of what one might call spring rolls — the cold and crisp mint/basil, carrot, noodle, and tofu items that are dipped into a sweet plum sauce. They were awesome. And the things they called spring rolls were what we would usually thing of as “egg rolls” — tiny fried cylinders that went into a spicier but still sweet sauce. They were also fantastic. There were plenty of them and they had the desired effect of getting us excited for the entrees to come. The appetizers here were, frankly, everything that the appetizers at Lek’s and Ala Thai aspire to be – fresh, simple, and non-greasy.

The only slight disappointment was that the drunken noodles were listed on the menu as “spicy” and really weren’t. They were tasty though and the server brought an additional plate of super hot condiments that could be added to increase the heat level. So when those were added to the torn noodles and tofu, the heat reached the right level.

The highlight was my entree — the noodle stir fry. When I ordered it, unlike with the “spicy drunken noodle,” the server asked me to rate on a scale of one to ten how spicy I wanted it. I went with 7.5 and it was right in that range, which for me is QUITE spicy. In my experience, my threshold for heat is a bit higher than most, so if you’re on the fence, aim low. These people know how to bring the fire.

And by that, I mean the good kind — where it doesn’t overpower the natural flavor of the noodles and the ingredients. It was great at first bite, but when I squeezed the fresh lime over it, it pushed it to new levels. Truly a memorable batch of noodles and veggies — thick but not heavy, fresh but not insubstantial, hot but not mind-warping. I passed mine around and sealed the deal that we’d be back, if only to order more food like this. We agreed that this was a good notch or two ahead of other Thai food we’ve had here in town: Ala Thai and Lek’s. Which is not to say we don’t love Ala Thai. Lek’s, um, less so.

It’s a damn shame that you have to drive all the way out to the Hellscape’s Chantilly Parkway to get food this good. We have heard a rumor that Thai Gratiem might be opening a Midtown/Cloverdale branch in the near future, and we’re hoping that turns out to be true.