I don't know whether people from other lands tend to generalize about our cuisine like we do about theirs, but I suspect it is an international, multicultural pastime.
If you asked someone from Denmark or Laos, "What are the main characteristics of American food?" would they respond that American's eat hamburgers for every meal, every day? Maybe. Would they say we all eat barbeque all the time? Maybe. If their only exposure was Boston, they might say we all eat lobster; Tennessee, perhaps chicken fried steak. Point is: America is as much a fusion-based cuisine as every other culture.
If I had to pick two cuisines that are probably stereotyped more than any others though, I would probably say Italian and Thai.
Most will describe Thai as spicy-hot with a lot of curries and chilies, as well as stir-fried with rice and vegetables as staple ingredients. This is true to a point, but if you visit Bamboo Thai Bistro, 5079 S. Yale Ave., you will see that there is a lot more to it than many of us give it credit for. Thai cuisine is most definitely a fusion of many, many, influences over the last four hundred years. The obvious: Chinese, a little Malaysian, some Japanese, but also the not so obvious: Dutch, Indian, Portuguese and yes, even the French.
Thais for instance love beef tongue stew, (French) and with very few exceptions all their curries are born of East Indian influences. Ghee, the clarified butter used in Indian cooking, was adapted to incorporate local ingredients, and so coconut oil became a natural substitute. Coconut milk is used in the place of other varied dairy products as well.
Thai curries tend to be explosively hot for a short time, and then subside quickly, (think wasabi) whereas Indian type curries tend to linger, (think jalapeno pepper).
As you enter Bamboo Thai Bistro, the first thing you are struck by is what an exceptional transformation took place from the days when the building housed a florist. As a matter of fact, it is pretty easy to miss, since there appears to be no lit signage out front.
No used, worn Mediterranean-style chairs from some long forgotten steak house, no chipped and cracked plates and bowls purchased from an auction for pennies on the dollar. Bamboo Thai is very nicely appointed and really surprisingly elegant for such a small place. It's rich, red walls, ebony tables and booths, and comfortable Euro/Asian chairs give the diner hopes of a meal worth waiting for.
The servers were all professionally dressed neatly in black and bustling about delivering beautiful plates, expertly prepared in the back.
Our server was charming and helpful and after much deliberation I decided on the Massaman Curry. A perfect example of outside influences, this Thai dish is actually both Muslim and Indian in origin. In fact Massaman is believed to be a linguistic variation of the word Muslim. OK, so this one does conform to the spicy-hot reputation. Even has a pepper after it on the menu. Katie decided on the Princess Shrimp, which I am pretty sure has Chinese roots. Just to be on the safe side I ordered it for her with no spice whatsoever, since she is a bit of a spice weenie.
While we waited for entrees, a basket of those fluffy, crunchy, shrimp chips came to the table, hot and fresh. Those things are so good. It's kind of like eating a crispy version of shrimp-flavored meringue, or a cheese puff without the cheese part. Delish!
Shortly after, our appetizers arrived. I had taken the liberty of ordering several. The first, a Siam Roll, was big and fat, stuffed full of chicken, vegetables, bean thread noodles, and egg, the whole thing wrapped in an egg roll wrapper and deep fried. Fatter than a normal eggroll, it was a great deal at $4. The sauce for dipping was a chili-plum sauce and was excellent. It sweetened the savory and salty, and cooled off the hot roll perfectly. Nice!
Second was an order of crab rangoon. A won-ton wrapper filled with crab and cream cheese, ginger and green onion and deep-fried. This is not a typical appetizer from Southeast Asia. They don't cook with cream cheese. This appetizer was actually created in San Francisco, and has since become part of the Thai fusion I spoke of a minute ago. It's a good one regardless of where it originates. Only $5 for this dish of five. Another hit, and with a sweet dipping sauce as well.
I ordered a bowl of Tom Ka, a very traditional soup of coconut milk, lemongrass, mushrooms, chicken and galangal. If not obligatory on Thai menus in the U.S., it's at the very least quite common, along with its counterpart Tom Yum -- a clear, sweet and sour, shrimp based soup. When you sip the wonderful, rich coconut broth of Tom Ka, and get the scented, flowery aroma of the dish you are tasting and smelling the galangal, (pronounced ga-lang-ga). It's a cousin to ginger, and is also known as blue ginger. It's very aromatic, almost perfumy, and has very distinct properties. One tends to either love it, or hate it.
Shortly after, two beautifully executed plates of food arrived. My entree was arranged on a square white plate -- a combination of chicken, potatoes, garden peas, onions, scallions and peanuts in a spicy brown curry. Nicely seasoned, crisp vegetables, and a deliciously smooth sauce with a serious back bite. Just they way we curry fans like it.
Katie's dish, the Princess shrimp, came out nicely presented, but unfortunately was very spicy. It was loaded with big, plump, tender, shrimp, beautiful large chunks of bell pepper and onion, carrots, bamboo and water chestnut, and coated in a mahogany Asian brown sauce. I had ordered hers with no spice, and presume the server thought I said with lots of spice, because as soon as she took the first bite I watched her head explode. It was zippy even for me.
I am not the type of diner that expects that everything will always be perfect. Life in general, and the restaurant business in particular, are not exact sciences. What is of paramount importance however, is how an establishment handles the problems, and how gracefully they recover from a mistake. There's an old saying: "A good meal can't save bad service, but a good server can save a bad meal." It's a stretch to call this a bad meal, it wasn't, but the point is our server was apologetic, and had a replacement dish out within minutes.
We were intrigued by a dessert item called the Fried Banana Roll, but the waistline of my jeans told me to pass, so I never got the chance to try it. Hopefully we will be back soon to give it a go.
Bamboo Thai has a huge menu; mostly Thai items with a bit of Chinese and a little Japanese thrown in. A lot of pad dishes, which are essentially stir-fried. The obvious, pad Thai, (talk about obligatory!) served on every Thai menu in the US, and many less known pad dishes: pad almond, pad cashew nut, pad pak, pad eggplant, pad pak, pad prik, pad gai, and more.
The curry selection is just as impressive with Panang, yellow, Massamun, green, peanut, red, gang gai, and fish curries as well.
But it doesn't stop there. There is even a duck section, several steaks, lots of noodle dishes, a fried rice selection, and more.
Possibly most impressive is the pricing. With few exceptions, almost every dish I have mentioned here is in the $8.50-$8.95 range, with an extra dollar added on for shrimp, scallops or squid. All the dishes are served with a side of either steamed or fried rice and if our meal is any indicator, delicious. I have heard folks who are even bigger Thai food fans than me say it's the best in town. I haven't tried them all yet, but this is definitely one of the best.
Bamboo Thai Bistro
5079 S. Yale Ave.
Pricing: Very moderate
Sunday noon -- 9pm
Service: ***and a half
Food: ***and a half
Atmosphere: ***and a half
Wow!! This place is off the charts*****
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