An old boss of mine used to gleefully order his lunch "Thai hot." That's when I learned boy-joy could come in the form of your face turning beet red, brow sweating and nose running. Given my reticence to partake, I've always felt I couldn't fully appreciate Thai cuisine.
But a visit to my old stomping grounds changed things. Roungnapa, half a block south of the Citadel Mall on Chelton Road, has been dishing an expansive Thai menu and Japanese yakitori favorites for almost five years.
Walking in, it was evident that the dining room, particularly the worn carpet, had seen better days. But the eclectic mix of imitation flowers, figurines and portraits of the Thai Imperial family soon took a backseat to a friendly and attentive staff and fine cuisine.
With the whole family coming to dinner, we tapped both menus. Choosing from the House of Yakitori 8 menu, my kids loved the tatsuta ($4.75), tiny bites of tender, deep-fried beef with a tangy mustard dipping sauce, and the small and outwardly crispy gyoza dumplings (seven pieces for $4.25) filled with juicy pork and served with a teriyaki sauce.
More than 70 items stuff the Thai menu, but my husband and I zeroed in on the seafood section. He chose the pad phed pla muk ($8.95) thin-sliced squid sauted with bell pepper, onion and a Thai spicy sauce. With a choice of mild, medium, hot and extra hot, he shot me a glance and wisely chose medium.
Squid is a funny thing, in that it lacks any middle ground: Cook it fast or cook it long, because anywhere in between and you're chewing on a section of whitewall radials. Roungnapa gets that, and served its white, finely cut squid quite tender with a good bit of heat.
I chose the pia raad khing ($9.50), pan-fried whole tilapia served with a ginger sauce. With the bones still in, the fish wasn't easy to eat, but it was succulent and worth the effort.
I next invited my mom and her friend for lunch; having dual menus couldn't have been better. I chose the pad se eew rice noodle combo ($7.75) tossed with beef, pork, shrimp and chicken in a sweet Thai sauce it scored with full flavors, again at medium heat.
My mom's friend chose the delicious chicken teriyaki ($6.65) juicy chicken in a sweet dark sauce with bright flecks of red chilies also medium. Sniffing, she said, "Yep, that's the right heat." My mom ordered the shrimp fried rice ($6.75), speckled with green onions and tomatoes, and was impressed with Roungnapa's version of the standard.
Lunch also came with a brothy soup (sans veggies or meat), a wonderful, crispy egg roll and a sweet-and-sour sauce that, unlike your typical thick, red, generic sauce, was clear and light, with a hint of red chilies. Lovely, and subtle.
Lee Char, manager of the dual-focused venture, says the recipes at Roungnapa have been passed down from generation to generation. Pondering that passage of time, I was glad to find that my old 'hood still had something to teach me: I guess I can take the heat after all. Well, at least when it's medium. Enjoying Thai doesn't have to mean punishing your senses to join the boys' club.