A couple years ago, 14th Street wasn’t exactly the nicest place to take a stroll, let alone seek out interesting dining. The only time you ventured down the thoroughfare was if you were attending a show in its theater district or going to the Saint to spend a Sunday evening at Lizard Lounge.
What a difference two years make.
As Whole Foods becomes a hub of activity and the various condominiums, apartments, and lofts pop up along 14th and P, you may have noticed how many people are out on foot and in cars around the area. Several home furnishing stores, cafes, and new restaurants are riding this urban revival, a perfect example of which is Thai Tanic.
Like the spices in the food, the restaurant is anything but subtle in appearance. The first thing you notice as you approach is the pulsating magenta light emanating from the front window, the flickering quality reminding you of the light spilling from a window in a dark neighborhood from those lone television sets that are the only sign of visible life. Once inside, you find that the magenta color is actually a projection of the interior: aluminum, in the form of geometric shapes on the walls and hammered table tops, reflects the light back onto the street. Tiny glitter-covered balls run the length of the ceiling over the old fountain bar situated against the wall to the right. As you sit down in the stainless steel framed chairs with red space-age polymer seats, the magenta and metal combine like a cheap nail polish. Take a closer look at the right hand wall and you’ll notice a floor to ceiling mural of underwater life.
With dishes both unusual and comforting, the cuisine of Thai Tanic rewards those who take chances. Tod Mun Par, an appetizer of deep fried spicy fish cakes made from fish paste blended with red curry, kaffir lime leaves, and green beans is delicious and almost sensual in experience. The burn from the red chilies and garlic in the curry is cumulative: as you consume more of the cakes, the heat across your tongue increases until every nerve feels as though it’s on fire. While the lime leaves are refreshing and add a nice citrus undertone to the dish, a cool minced red onion and cucumber relish with crushed peanuts clashes with the fish cakes. Best to leave it to the side. A more successful pairing of the relish is as a side to the Chicken Satay — grilled skewers of chicken marinated in a mixture of cumin, turmeric, and coconut milk. The sweet and creamy burn of the peanut sauce made from a mixture of red curry, coconut milk, tamarind and peanuts, combines nicely with the chicken’s spices.
Alternatively, Yum Talay — a medley of cooked scallops, shrimp, mussels and squid tossed with a spicy lime sauce served at Thai Tanic — is unusual but works. Plated with lettuce and combined with cilantro, carrots, diced red and green onions, and chopped red chilies, the seafood is fresh and zesty. As disparate as the ingredients are, the lime sauce does more to highlight the vegetables and seafood than overpower them. The mussels on a half shell arranged around the edge of the plate are a nice touch.
If the spices in the appetizers tease you with the promise of more to come, the entrees deliver. Chicken Panang is wonderful. Simmered in a sauce of red curry, peanuts and coconut milk, the chicken is tender and flavorful. The lime leaves sprinkled throughout and the reduced coconut milk spooned atop the mixture create a welcome, cooling contrast.
Pad Prik Sod, thin slices of pork stir fried with garlic, fresh chilies, green beans and perfumed by fresh basil, is a wonderful discovery and leaves you longing for seconds. Listed as one of the chef’s specials, the Thai Tanic lemongrass chicken — tender cubes of white meat sautÃ©ed with slivered lemon grass, Thai basil, bell peppers, red chilies and garlic — has a pleasing lemony flavor and a healthy afterburn.
There are a few missteps. For instance, gingered beef stir fried in a fish sauce with fresh garlic, julienned onions, green bell peppers, and chopped wood ear mushrooms, is a too salty, the dish’s flavors indiscernible from one another.
Thankfully, Thai desserts are designed to be a cool finish to a spicy meal. The dessert menu goes beyond the standard steamed sticky rice tossed with coconut milk and served with sliced mangoes. The biggest surprise is Black Sticky Rice Pudding. The reduced black rice base is served with a thick sauce made from taro root and a dollop of coconut milk, carrying forth a traditional Thai cuisine mainstay of blending sweetness with tartness.
A dessert of warmed coconut custard is also excellent. Served with a thick mango sauce drizzled around the edges and shaved mango over the top, the whipped, baked coconut is a perfect conclusion to the meal — mild and satisfying.
Be sure to consider one of the many tropical drinks listed on the menu’s back page. In particular, The Bangkok Sunset, a mixture of a lapasang quality black tea mixed with fresh lemonade and rum is a wonderful, exotic surprise. And the modified Bellini, prepared with sparkling wine, sweet peach schnapps and pucker-inducing lemoncello, an Italian lemon liqueur, makes for a memorable cocktail.
Which pretty much sums up a dining experience at Thai Tanic — memorable. It’s yet one more reason to visit 14th Street.