Thai Pepper

 A terrific newcomer
By JOHNETTE RODRIGUEZ  |  January 28, 2010

We’d gotten the tip from a friend who couldn’t remember the name but raved about the food. He mentioned the location, across from the renovated train station in Westerly, so we headed west on a recent wintry night. It’s a modest place called Thai Pepper, but the food is worthy of a king. Indeed, pictures of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest reigning monarch, who recently celebrated his 60th year on the Thai throne, sit on narrow shelves just below the ceiling of the small dining room.

One wall is deep chili red, with silvery flying dragons and golden masks for decoration; the opposite wall is a soft green-tea green with two intricate paper cuttings of traditional Thai dancers. Four large windows with bamboo shades dominate the front of the room; the back wall has several variations of small elephant friezes, as does the fancy wooden cover of the menu, a beautiful portent of what’s inside.

We knew we were in good hands when Bill started swooning over the deep-fried tofu triangles ($3.50), and murmuring mmmms into the cup of tom kar gai ($3) he was sipping. This particular soup, a delicate balance of chicken broth and coconut milk, is something we sample whenever possible, and this was the best we’ve tasted. We both liked the bright taste of plenty of lime juice, lemongrass, and galanga (a relative of ginger root), with lots of chicken and button mushrooms. The oil used to cook the tofu triangles was so fresh and hot that the outsides were crisp and the insides melt-in-your-mouth soft. 

The Thai Pepper sampler ($9.50), which jump-started our feast, also bowled us over. One look at the platter and we knew we’d be taking much of our entrées home with us. Three large pieces of tender chicken satay, marinated in the spices that made the soup so good, were served with a peanut and cucumber sauce. Three spring rolls, tight as Cuban cigars, held ground pork along with grated cabbage, carrots, and celery, with a sweet and sour sauce. Two “fresh rolls” (nime chow in their Vietnamese incarnation) had shrimp, rice noodles, tofu, and veggies, and came with a clear peanut sauce. And there were two “shrimp in the blanket,” wrapped in egg roll skins with a bit of ground pork for good measure.

After that introduction, we took our time surveying the rest of the menu. A half-dozen preparations (garlic, cashew, hot basil, ginger, sweet and sour, emerald — with lots of green veggies — and a string bean/green pepper curry) are listed as “entrées,” to which chicken, beef, pork, shrimp, squid, duck, tofu, more veggies, or seafood (shrimp, squid, scallops, and mussels) can be added. The same items can be chosen for a red, green, panang, or massaman curry, each differently spiced and built on a base of coconut milk.

Next came the noodle and fried rice variations. The pineapple fried rice caught my eye. The nine chef’s specialties include a few Thai titles and a few clever English ones. From these numerous choices, we settled on a special, the tamarind duck ($13.95), a noodle dish called “drunken noodle,” with chicken ($8.95), and my first favorite Thai item, massaman curry, with tofu ($7.95).

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