Open for a little more than one year in a strip mall overlooking B Street near Fort Carson, Taste of Thai Spice makes a welcome addition to the burgeoning ethnic eateries of south Colorado Springs. The owners, two sisters, have done their best to breathe life into the sterile space, cleverly using screens and a bounty of plants to create an atmospheric foyer. Opposite the door, an impressive array of small items, from elegant tea sets to unusual ceramic elephants painted with the Stars and Stripes, crowd into a modest display cabinet, ready for sale. More plants, butterfly stencils, elaborate fans and pictures of menu items decorate the dining room and fresh-cut orchids adorn each table.
Exotic flowers are only the first hint of what is to come. Thai cuisine is among the most flavorful of any I know, blending sweet and spicy, tangy and savory in order to excite many parts of the palate. Sometimes there is also a great contrast in texture among the different elements in a dish. Since most regional foods match their environment, and because it is usually very hot and very humid in Thailand, Thai foods are meant not just to taste good but also to help you beat the heat. That's why cool vegetables and hot peppers figure prominently in so many Thai recipes. If the latter strategy seems counterintuitive, keep in mind that spicy foods make you sweat, meaning the heat you feel in your mouth actually triggers your natural air conditioning.
Take for example Taste of Thai Spice's chicken salad. It begins with a mix of small pieces of chicken, red onion, green onion, cilantro and hot pepper flakes. This mixture is served cold and with a dressing of vinegar, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and a little toasted rice powder. Where's the lettuce, you ask? There isn't any.
Instead, the salad is served with leaves of crisp fresh cabbage, into which you spoon some of the chicken and then use your hands to do the rest. From the first bite, you'll be hooked as the contrasts abound. In terms of flavor, the cabbage balances the spicy and tangy chicken, but that's not the whole story. Cabbage also packs a crunch, adding a burst of cool moisture and making a great contrast with the delicately textured salad.
Tom-Kha-Kai, a hot soup of chicken, mushrooms and other vegetables in coconut milk, is another one of my favorite dishes. At Taste of Thai Spice, the broth is silky smooth and spiked with lemongrass, galanga, lime leaves and a touch of hot pepper. International comfort food at its finest, few bowls on earth taste better this one on a cold and snowy day.
The many noodle dishes are also quite good. Drunken Noodles, or Pad-Kee-Mow, features wide, slightly spongy, rice noodles in a rich brown sauce. A bit lighter, but still serious about flavor, is the Pad-Ka-Plaow, which matches the same wide noodles with baby bok choy, bean sprouts and Thai sweet basil. I asked for spicy, and I got it. The heat was solid and consistent -- enough to make my scalp tingle and bring a few beads of sweat to the brow -- but never overwhelmed the food. Instead, they integrated the spiciness into the flavors by balancing it with savory elements in the sauce, the slices of pork, and the sweetness from the basil. A third noodle dish, the classic Pad Thai, featuring rice stick noodles, bean sprouts, and ground peanuts, was surprisingly light and delicate.
Curry, another Thai staple, can be found in three forms at Taste of Thai Spice: red, green, and Panang. Each features your choice of chicken, pork, beef, shrimp or tofu accompanied by bell peppers, sweet basil and bamboo shoots. Most restaurants cut the curry with enough coconut milk to make something like a sweet, soupy stew with a spicy underpinning. Our dish of shrimp in Panang curry was quite the opposite, using a relatively small amount of coconut milk and letting the curry take center stage. This made for a very rustic, earthy dish among the most intensely flavorful I have ever encountered. Although not what I was expecting, I enjoyed it.
In addition to their very good food, Taste of Thai Spice offers very friendly and attentive service. They are happy to make recommendations and explain dishes in some detail. Another strong point is that spicy means spicy. If you aren't really into hot foods, don't worry. They'll happily oblige your request for a gentle hand. But, if hot's your thing, this is a good place to get it. Spicy or mild, I am a big fan of Thai food, and I really liked eating at Taste of Thai Spice. They offer interesting, flavorful dishes that are fun to eat.
-- David Torres-Rouff
Taste of Thai Spice
1609 Lashelle Way (corner of B Street and S. Academy; best accessed from the east via the B Street exit off of S. Academy)
Hours: Lunch and dinner, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 7 p.m. 226-1999
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