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From Hot to Sweet 

Tam Nak Thai satisfies the adventurous palate

click to enlarge Cool your taste buds with coconut ice cream - SCOTT LARRICK

Beware of the three stars. The three stars will cause your forehead to bead with bullet-sized drops of sweat. Your lungs will heave. Your ears will sweat. Your tongue will pass out. Your nasal passages will open wide enough to admit a crop-dusting plane. And your poor taste buds will never be the same again.

Of course, I'm talking about ordering at Tam Nak Thai. When you order your dishes three-star hot, the waitress will ask you if you're certain you know how hot that is, and if that's really what you want to order. If that is what you want, you're in for a treat. If that isn't what you want, order one or two stars. Or go for the no-star items on the menu, which are still plenty flavorful.

You can begin your meal with a soup, although you need to heed the notice on the menu that states these soups are large enough to serve 3 to 4 people. They aren't kidding. You can sample Tom Yum Goong, which is a Thai-style hot-and-sour soup that makes Chinese hot-and-sour soup look thick and dull. The light, flavorful broth has just the right amount of heat, and the soup is filled with shrimp, mushrooms and tomato, flavored with galangal (most similar to ginger), lemongrass and fresh cilantro. In fact, these three spices come together in various permutations to flavor many of the menu items, and that is not a reason to complain.

For the weak at heart (or palate), or for the kiddies in your group, try ordering the Khao Pad Puck, the mixed vegetable fried rice. The rice is firm, not greasy, and combined with fresh broccoli, carrots, tomatoes, bean sprouts, mushrooms, onions (white and green), with bits of egg stir-fried into the mixture. It's a wonderfully satisfying meal, and unless you're starving, you'll have enough left over for lunch the next day.

Of course, it wouldn't be a real Thai restaurant without Pad Thai. Shrimp and chicken are stir-fried with rice noodles, egg, green onion and bean sprouts in a special Thai seasoning. This is garnished with chopped peanuts, which adds just the right crunch. If you like things spicy, you can get extra crushed pepper on the side to stir in and heat it up to your liking.

Among the beef dishes, you can get a beef in teriyaki sauce, but why bother? There are many more interesting taste sensations to be had. Try the Nuea Yang Na Tok (Waterfall Beef), which is a barbecued beef with ground, roasted rice and red and green onion, all seasoned with a spicy lime sauce. Roasted rice is hard to describe, but it adds a wonderful depth of flavor and texture to this dish. Just be warned, if you order this dish extra hot, your tongue may need to be carried out on a stretcher. You could also try the Laab Nuea, which is a ground beef salad loaded with fresh onions and vegetables in the same spicy lime sauce. Yum Gai is a chicken version of the salad and includes fresh tomatoes and cucumbers for a refreshing change.

Tam Nak Thai is one of the few places where I don't feel guilty about indulging in sweet-and-sour gai (chicken). I love the combination of sweet and sour flavors, but let's face it, who among us really needs the extra calories from the deep-fried breading around the chicken? I certainly don't. But the Thai version combines sliced chicken with tomato, pineapple, bell pepper and other vegetables, all stir-fried together in a light, tangy sweet-and-sour sauce. No deep-frying means no guilt.

If you like squid, you'll be in heaven here, because it's prepared so well it practically melts in your mouth. That's right, chain-restaurant fans, squid isn't supposed to resemble rubberbands in texture. You can sample squid stir-fried with bell pepper, bamboo shoots, carrots and onions in a spicy sauce, or in a spicy sauce heavily flavored with fresh basil leaves, or flavored heavily with pepper and ginger, stir-fried with vegetables. You just can't go wrong.

Another great noodle dish is the Mee Grob Raad Naa Ta Lay. Shrimp, that meltingly tender squid, baby scallops and crabmeat are stir-fried with crispy noodles and vegetables, served with a Thai brown gravy on top. My only complaint here is that the crab is really krab. The crispy noodles, after soaking the Thai gravy, aren't really crispy, but are more toothsome, chewy and interesting than regular noodles. When I got my last order of this particular dish, I had to fight my 2-year-old for the noodles, so intent was she on scooping them out of my plate and slurping them down.

There are lots of menu items I haven't gotten around to sampling yet. There is a long list of Thai curries, which I don't particularly care for (I don't like coconut milk), but my husband loves. You can get them flavored with red curry paste, green curry paste or tamarind, with beef, shrimp, pork or chicken. There's also a nice selection of vegetarian dishes, including sweet-and-sour tofu, a tofu curry and other variations on their main menu selections that substitute tofu for meat.

Save the best for last. Tam Nak Thai has, hands down, the very best, the most exquisite, the most sinfully rich homemade coconut ice cream I've ever tasted. It's pure cocount-flavored, studded with small chunks of fresh jack fruit, which we initially mistook for pineapple, although the flavor was sweeter and fresher. The ice cream is served with just a dusting of crushed peanuts on top, and that is all it needs. Order a bowl for everyone, because you will not want to share. And maybe you should order two bowls for anyone who ordered their meal three-star hot.

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