Flavor: Mainstream Thai classics
Ambiance: More King & I than downtown Bangkok
Some towns have all the luck.
When a town’s school cafeteria’s versions of Italian, Chinese and Mexican classics rivals its restaurant row for wild exoticism, despairing local eaters generally give up on quality and start saying silent prayers for quantity. Even their most fervent supplications start to sound like flea-market bargains: Grant us a sushi joint, and I’ll eat imitation crab without complaint. Produce a place that serves spanakopita, and I swear I won’t care if the kitchen uses ricotta instead of feta. Because even if a Vietnamese eatery were to suddenly materialize on Main Street, its serving phenomenal pho would qualify as a kind of miracle.
At the start of 2007, there were some obvious, gaping holes in Hendersonville’s tapestry of ethnic-dining options. Even though non-native yums like hummus and burritos were readily available downtown, a craving for a smoked-salmon roll was still a cue to fill up the gas tank. Heaven help those who wanted meat patties or pad thai.
And then—lo!—One Love appeared, serving funky Jamaican delicacies available nowhere else in Western North Carolina. Next, Umi set up shop on the corner of Main Street and Seventh Avenue, treating patrons to fantastically fresh fish in heart-meltingly gorgeous presentations. After years of waiting, Hendersonville didn’t just get a pair of ethnic restaurants: It got two very good ones.
Proving the year was indeed charmed, Thai Spice—the zip code’s first Thai spot—opened in December. Like its pioneering predecessors, the restaurant is worth visiting not because it’s the only eatery in town with panang curry on its menu, but because it is a terrifically good place to dine.
According to the slogan appended to its sign (and reiterated on the menu), Thai Spice offers a fine-dining experience. And while folks at Michelin might quibble over the term “fine dining” (the restaurant’s lacquered tables are bare, and nobody looks askance when a couple ambles in for dinner dressed for a New Year’s resolution-fueled trip to the gym) the overall vibe is decidedly upscale.
The restaurant doesn’t miss a chance to dress up the mundane, layering takeout containers with doilies and putting a round vase of floating purple flowers in the women’s restroom. Still, all of the addendums are tasteful and remarkably restrained: Only a few pieces of Thai art are hung on the walls, which are painted in muted shades of red and yellow that recall the sweet and mustardy sauces served at so many Asian-esque restaurants. The servers, dressed in crisp black pants, starched white shirts and neckties, wear burgundy bib aprons to match.
In keeping with the classy atmosphere, there doesn’t seem to be much family-style ordering at Thai Spice. Most every diner I saw ordered his or her own entrée, and often a glass of wine to go with it. With dinner entrées starting at $11, Thai Spice makes dining feel like a drink-worthy occasion: Once, while awaiting a takeout order at the bar, I sat next to a 6-year-old enjoying her first Shirley Temple, served in a Styrofoam cup. Of course, for those who have graduated from grenadine-laced drinks, beer is often the better match for Thai food, and the restaurant offers brews ranging from Abita to Singha.
It’s too bad there isn’t more sharing of dishes, since so many of them are so good. The servers are young and unfailingly polite: I watched one especially patient server deal with a pouty woman who couldn’t figure out how to transfer her shrimp curry to a takeout box. He smiled, brought her every sort of container she requested, and pleasantly “yes ma’am”‘ed her throughout the ordeal. The staff steers diners toward the entrées most likely to show up at the Thai pavilion at Epcot Center: Pad thai and fried rice win raves. And while they’re right on both counts, a few other dishes on the short menu are well worth finding.
I was besotted by an earthy lemongrass soup with button mushrooms that was soft as cashmere and subtly sweet, with an unusual but welcome honeyed flavor. The plump shrimp in the limey broth were perfectly poached, adding zing instead of ballast to the ever-so-slightly spicy soup.
The appetizers I sampled were less satisfying, but, to be fair, I didn’t try them all. Suffice to say most of the starters’ descriptions begin with the words “crispy fried.” Perhaps it’s best to skip that column and head directly for the entrée section, which includes all the requisite rice and noodle dishes, in addition to a half-dozen dinner plates and a selection of proteins to be paired with one of 10 sauces. Diners can have their tofu tossed with red chili, calamari served with cashew-nut sauce or broiled lobster dressed with a fresh ginger finish—among other possible combinations. Indeed, according to my admittedly poor math, a Thai Spice customer could dine almost 100 times before having to order a repeat entrée (just don’t ask me to calculate how quickly he could get home if x = the weight he put on from eating so much curry).
Of the entrées, I especially liked the sliced pork loin, a dish forested with stiff bamboo shoots and drenched in a dark curry-based sauce. Although the dish merited a chili-pepper icon on the menu, its heat sputtered out on my lips, leaving the faintest tingle without reaching my gullet or—more to the point, in head-cold season—my sinuses. Still, the dish made use of multiple seasonings and was perked up by diced fresh green and red peppers.
The letdowns were few. The vegetables in the Southern Charm fried rice, a house favorite featuring chicken, shrimp, eggs and onions still bearing grill scars, seemed less than fresh: The fragrant curried rice was unfortunately sullied by thawed sweet peas and corn nibblets. I much preferred the noodle dishes I sampled, including drunken noodles with beef. While the beef was slightly overcooked, the wide rice noodles were seductively tender and the basil sauce was beautifully balanced.
When self-proclaimed food adventurers like Anthony Bourdain start spouting off about namby-pamby American ethnic restaurants, places like Thai Spice are probably what they have in mind: The menu is written in English, and the surroundings are scrubbed clean. But those sticklers who bypass Thai Spice are missing out on the very thing anyone wishing for a new cuisine in town is ultimately seeking: An enjoyable and well-executed meal.