With recent reviews of new Thai operations in the Springs, a handful of key questions have helped define the benchmark. Among them: Is the food traditional/authentic? Is it consistent? And does "Thai hot" mean I'm going to snivel and tear, or yawn and sneer?
OK, heat isn't everything. And if your pad Thai tastes spectacular, you probably don't really care that it's not a dead ringer for that which you drunkenly devoured on Bangkok's Khao San Road during your backpacking years.
But a true Thai enthusiast knows when the rich Tom Kha Gai soup broth has just the right amount of lemongrass and lime accent, or when homemade coconut ice cream hits semi-sweet perfection with a milky, yet coarse, texture. And that enthusiast certainly knows when a joint smacks of Americanized Thai with a generic Asian fusion feel.
Colorado Springs' newest Rockrimmon-area Thai venture, NaRai (the name of a 17th-century Siamese king and also of the royal boat), certainly does not fall in the latter category. Beyond the fast and friendly service, handsome, small dining room, and nice menu touches (a brown rice option costs an extra $1.50), NaRai's cuisine measures largely superb. It's largely traditional as well, aside from a few negligible departures. And an order of the green curry seafood ($12.95), Thai hot, left me lip-charred and pore-opened. Hail to the chef.
NaRai just landed a liquor license, but I'd recommend accompanying any meal with either the Thai ginger drink ($2.75) or Thai coconut drink ($2.50). Both sweet, the ginger also is sharp and tangy, while the coconut delivers slivered chunks of coconut meat and provides an earthy accompaniment to curry heat.
NaRai's Tom Kha Gai ($8.50), ordered medium or hot, shines true and feeds a pair; the larb salad with tender, minced chicken or pork ($6.25) screams fresh with a masterfully spiced meat over minty, crisp cabbage and red onion.
One of my staples, the papaya salad ($7.25), a marriage of pungent fish sauce and lime over the shredded fruit, tomatoes, hot peppers and carrots, again delivers on freshness and is certainly better than most in town. But in some way that's difficult to entirely quantify, it falls short of the papaya salad at the restaurant against which I continue to measure all other Thai places, Taste of Thai Spice.
For authenticity, none compare I've had former Bangkok residents tell me the same. And while on the topic, ditto NaRai's coconut ice cream ($3) good, but blown away on B Street.
Call it unfair to play the comparison game; let me emphasize that nothing should steer you away from multiple NaRai visits. The aforementioned green curry seafood came in a divine sauce with a generous assortment of shrimp, delicate scallops, chewy calamari bits and catfish wedges, and a couple green lip mussels. The thick rice drunken noodles and Pad Thai (both $6.95, lunch; $8.95, dinner) had distinct, delicate personalities differing slightly from other traditional in-town takes. And the Massaman curry (same price), with your choice of protein joining potatoes and hints of cinnamon and spice in coconut milk, will satisfy Indian food lovers.
As one Thai-loving reader turned weekly NaRai patron assured me, this place does not disappoint.