Other than a small take-out box of pad thai, I hadn’t had any Thai food since arriving in Shanghai. That wasn’t by design, just a combination of overwhelming choices of topnotch Chinese food and no word-of-mouth buzz surrounding any Thai restaurants. But then recently, my friend Frank mentioned this place right down the street called Thai House, and since we were feeling pretty lazy about figuring out midweek dinner plans, it seemed natural when we ended up there on a Tuesday night.
As for the larger point about Thai food in Shanghai, my fellow diners that night lamented that good Thai was generally overpriced, which is a real shame, since the best Thai I’ve had (and most Thai food, for that matter) is usually pretty good value for the cash money. Perhaps the flavor profiles allow it more of a premium, but I’m still not sure why it would be an upmarket cuisine here, when spicy foods are relatively common in both Hunan and Sichuan cooking.
Anyway, one of the nice things about Thai House, they all said, was that it was much more reasonably priced, without sacrificing quality. Once you get over the slight inconvenience of its location (very randomly situated on the second floor of a random seemingly residential building down a random dark alley off Wuding Lu and Xikang Lu), the decor feels fairly on point with what a good Thai restaurant has come to feel like – just slightly rundown, festooned with framed magazine cutouts and photos, holiday lights grape-vining along the walls, low tables and creaky seats, the ornate silver serving bowls for rice, curry or soup trays heated with the little blue gel flame.
We were all starving, so we piled on the orders, which for whatever reason gravitated towards soups and away from noodle dishes. Frank made a face when I started to order a fried fish curry, apparently based on previous experience with filets gone bad. And I accidentally ordered a squid tentacle stir-fry that I thought, according to menu pictures, was a bit more like deep-fried calamari. That’ll teach me to actually read the menu next time.
After the first round, I was really glad there was ample air conditioning for such a hole-in-the-wall, because they really put some heat into the papaya and mango salads.
I can’t remember the last time I sweated exclusively from back of my head, but it is a strange feeling. The spice was punishingly strong, we were all wishing that they’d sent the white rice out with the salads. I immediately ordered Thai iced teas to try to get my hypothalamus in order.
The next dishes – the tom yum and tom kah soups – were in and of themselves much milder, but hot enough to trigger whatever leftover spice was left in my mouth. More flavor punishment, followed by weird sweating. I think we went through the table’s entire stack of napkins.
Once we recovered a bit from the heat, the remaining two dishes – sauteed morning glory with shrimp paste and red roast duck curry – were a welcome change, not only for the lack of spice but for their robust flavors. Morning glory is one of those childhood things for me – sauteed simply with garlic, it was one of the only vegetables I liked as a kid and so my mom would often have it at the dinner table. Love of that dish even reached my little sister, who has spent all twelve years of her life in the states, where my parents grow the stalky plant in their suburban backyard. Thai House’s version was similar in spirit, and thankfully not overcooked.
The red roast duck curry was also tasty, with crunchy chunks of bamboo. I lathered it generously over piles of jasmine rice.
For it being the first legitimate Thai food I’ve had in Shanghai, Thai House is more than respectable. I’m hoping the fish situation was just an anomaly, because some fried red snapper (or whatever) with basil leaves (or whatever) would be a real treat. Frank said that the pain inflicted by the salads were the restaurant’s way of reprimanding him for warning me about the fish. Touché, Thai House, touché.
Rm.205, No.12, Lane 657 Wuding Lu
(1) Papaya salad, (2) tom yum and tom kah soup, (3) red roast duck curry, (4) sauteed morning glory.