And now, for the next installment of our deliciously endless tour of Thai restaurants along the White Bridge Road-Thompson Lane corridor, we take you just east of Nolensville Road to Ginger, where owner Noy Phongsavan and her family assemble a fresh array of noodle and rice dishes, using ingredients from their adjacent grocery store.
Phongsavan, a native of Laos, is no newcomer to the neighborhood. For two decades, she operated an Asian grocery store nearby, but last fall when she and her sister and niece relocated the Laolenexang market to a small, modern strip mall on Logan Street — just around the corner — they expanded the enterprise to include a separate sit-down restaurant. The Laotian family turned to Thai chef Termsuk Klinudom (also nicknamed "Noy") to create a repertoire that showcases the flavors of their native Southeast Asia.
Rice and noodles are the foundation ingredients on Ginger's menu, which is richly textured with aromatics such as ginger and lemongrass, herbs such as cilantro and basil, and meats ranging from duck to shrimp. But of all the fresh and far-flung inputs that go into the noodle soups, curries and other specialties, it just might be transparency — of all things — that makes Ginger stand out. A window at the back of the small dining room invites guests to watch the kitchen team at work, and the view of so many steaming stockpots — filled with vegetarian and meat-based broths — is enough to whet anyone's whistle. Meanwhile, there's something encouraging about cruising the aisles of the adjacent store and seeing the ingredients that go into your meal — from fluffy bundles of mint leaves that enliven many stir-frys to Asian pumpkins that make their way into an exotic and decadent dessert.
Ginger is not just a lunch counter tacked onto a grocery store. It's an attractive, contemporary eatery with a well-considered, if streamlined, design concept. Walls painted vibrant orange and green echo the flavors of mint, basil and chili that swirl throughout the meal; amber pendant lamps warm the room; and twinkle lights on the trees surrounding the parking lot give the dinner hour a sense of festiveness.
From the start, no detail was ignored. Creamy Thai tea was blended with a dark sweet brew whose floral bouquet held its own against a rich layer of half -and-half. The strong infusion was also excellent served over ice with a lime wedge — a few notches above standard-issue restaurant iced tea. Thai iced coffee was equally bold, made from a stout brew of chickory-laced Café du Monde. (Bargain hunters take note: A 15-ounce tin of Café du Monde coffee is available in the adjacent store for around $6.)
Meanwhile, that glass window into the kitchen worked both ways: No sooner had we dropped a fork on the floor than a server delivered a fresh one. A drink spilled, and she arrived to clean up the mess.
Peering through the window, we spied a crisped, bronzed duck perched on the stainless-steel counter. From then on we had duck on the brain, and we subsequently ordered a hat trick of duck dishes. Our single-mindedness was well rewarded. Ba mee phet (duck egg noodle) soup arrived in a large bowl of coffee-colored broth made from boiling the richly flavored bones of roast duck. The broth bobbed with tofu, cilantro, rice noodles and duck meat, to which we added the accoutrements of fresh bean sprouts, lime wedges and fresh lettuce. Our server got us started by stirring in enough chili paste to achieve "medium" heat, and she reminded us that Ginger's noodle soups are also available with vegetable-based broths.
Phet prik pow (spicy duck) was a bountiful stir-fry of sliced duck meat, red bell peppers, onion and basil, tossed with sweet and salty oyster sauce, but it was the yum phet yang (duck salad) that will draw us back to Ginger in short order. Tender duck meat and crisp skin tossed with finely chopped lemongrass, basil, onion, cilantro and kaffir lime leaves delighted in terms of both texture and flavor. Each bite was a medley of perfumes and textures, which left us wondering if maybe crisp-fried duck skin has what it takes to become the new bacon.
When we crossed the fowl line to other dishes, we found favorites among the tamarind-and-soy-infused pad thai (available with choice of meat) and yum woon sen, a stir-fry of glassy bean thread noodles, snow peas, scallions and plump deveined shrimp, tossed with chicken stock to add a flavor finish more delicate than the sweet and savory pad thai sauce.
A platter of golden battered-and-fried calamari was smaller than we expected, but the tender squid had the rare texture of cheese, rather than rubber bands, and we enjoyed the variety of fried bell pepper strips and onion included on the plate.
Tom kah gai, loaded with chicken and straw mushrooms, beautifully balanced the creamy thickness of coconut milk with the perfume of lemongrass and lime and the faint sting of chili.
While dessert seldom comes up in conversations about Thai food, there were a few house-made standouts. (And if you only want a little bite of something sweet, just wait for the thoughtful detail of a complimentary ginger candy that accompanies your bill.) A log pile of fried banana spring rolls, topped with sesame seeds and honey syrup, made an easy dish for sharing with a group. Meanwhile, the pumpkin custard delighted both as a taste treat and an exotic novelty. The baked confection layered strips of Asian pumpkin in a fluffy custard base — like a sweet egg casserole made with butternut squash. While our dessert arrived like a portion of bread pudding scooped from a pan, our server explained that her family's tradition is to hollow out a pumpkin, pour the custard batter inside the shell and bake the whole thing. Then they slice the pumpkin like a cake and serve sections with the batter encased in the pulp. That sounded like something fun to try, and here again, the proximity of the market enriched the dining experience: After our meal, we walked next door to explore and discovered a whole rack of curious green gourd-shaped fruits that were, in fact, Asian pumpkins. Next time we go back — and it will be very soon — we'll ask for the rest of the recipe.
Ginger serves lunch Monday through Friday and dinner nightly.
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