Our Gourmet: Thai Chili - A quiet getaway for great Asian fare in Salem
We often find our most enjoyable meals in little bistros tucked away on crowded streets or back roads. Such was the case with Thai Chili, which has an attractive, low-key frontage on busy Route 28, and a breath of fresh air inside — surrounded by wave after wave of flavorful aromas from the nearby kitchen — along with good prices and with sparkling service.
First Impressions 17/20
Our Gourmet: The dark windows and subtle signage outside beckon a closer look, and that's exactly what drew us to Thai Chili. Among all the screaming neon that lives just north of the Massachusetts border, Thai Chili boasts understated, simple Southeast Asian comfort in a spacious eatery with varnished wooden tables, low-key accoutrements and the kitchen right there behind some counter seats. We were there on a weeknight, and it was sparsely populated, but we bet it's crowded for lunch and on weekend evenings. As soon as you enter, your senses are racing to distinguish between chili powder, lemon grass, curry, Tom Yum and all the other venerable Thai sensations we aficionados crave. 17/20
The Dining Companion: I was so taken by my River Prawn Satay ($6.99) I was not going to share a morsel with OG, until four of the shrimps were enough and I was kind enough to comply to a request. Large shrimp were marinated in a sweet chili sauce, then skewered and grilled. That's simple enough, but then Thai sauce comes into play and a deliciously tangy diced cucumber sauce is flanked by a creamy, smooth peanut sauce, and suddenly you can't get enough sauce on the bite. 9/10
OG: Shumai ($5.95), a dish that requires carefully-timed steaming for maximum enjoyment, sometimes takes extra time in the kitchen to prepare. Our wait was only moments longer than usual, and eight delicately wrapped portions of steamed shrimp dumplings were expertly served up in a double-decked bamboo steamer, accompanied by sweet soy sauce for dipping. These shrimp delicacies were easily the best Shumai I have had in a long time, bursting with seafood flavor, wrapped lovingly in the lightest of dumpling batter, and thoroughly steamed to nearly melt in one's mouth. Outstanding. 9/10
OG: Welcome to a plate so chock-full of varied ingredients and with a unifying sauce so delicious it blends into spectacular oneness for any gourmand: Pad Pong Ka-Ree ($17.95) has taken its place in this Gourmet's 2012 lineup as the best meal plated.
Don't try this at home: Take carrots so thinly sliced you can nearly see through them, thick slices of white onions, thin slices of red and green peppers, a few morsels of scallion, along with egg and curry powder, then add four large, shelled shrimp, scallops and a generous portion of stir-fried crab meat, blend it all in the cooking pan, and add a slightly sweet, slightly spicy clear broth-sauce, and serve it so the scallops and shrimp seem nearly separated, but are still counted among the family of other ingredients. Then ask for a spoon, because the blend is not justified without the sauce, and there is plenty of that to make this dish almost like a soup.
Each bite is unique, depending on which ingredients you pick up, and all of it is graced by perfect temperature and preparation. 10/10
TDC: I was a happy diner indeed after my Happy Salmon ($15.95) arrived at our table. Three thick slabs of grilled salmon were artfully placed at the center of a crab-meat/vegetable stir-fry mixture, and all of it lightly coated with a subtle green-curry sauce that added the perfect accompaniment to this delicate dish. Curry is not for everyone, especially when it is spicy, and the chef of the verde variety at Thai Chili understands this and put the full curry flavor out front without sacrificing any of the other tastes. A terrific blend of seafood, vegetables and curry flavor without going over the top. 9/10
OG: Asian food often lends itself to something cold after all of those exotic tastes, and Vanilla Fried Ice Cream ($5.50) certainly filled that bill. Other fried and scooped ice cream flavors are also available, including ginger and mango, but a simple cold vanilla suited my tastes. What I wasn't prepared for was the nice-and-thick coating of fried batter outside, and a generous helping of blueberries all around the large scoop, served in an oversized martini glass. It was plenty for two, and the thickness of the batter kept that part crunchy and the ice cream ice cold in the middle. Again, attention to detail and a kitchen flair delivered an outstanding dish. I was mildly surprised with the blueberries, as that is not a taste or accompaniment universally enjoyed.
TDC: Our server had the run of the entire restaurant, but none of her patrons suffered a moment of hesitation or delay in attention. True, only three tables were occupied, but the dishes kept coming, tables was cleared quickly, water and wine were refilled at a moment's notice. And even though we were in rapturous delight throughout the meal, she kept checking on our progress and asking if everything was OK. Thai Chili is more than OK, it is a rare and special gem nestled in a sea of garish commercialism. Definitely worth a trip, especially for the breath of fresh air and truly tasteful meals.