For about the last five years, whenever the subject of Thai restaurants came up, someone in the crowd inevitably would throw in "that one way out Thompson Lane," though seldom could anyone come up with the name of the tiny Asian eatery (which technically was located on East Thompson Lane). Next time the conversation turns to cheap and cheerful Asian food, you can now throw in these details: The restaurant is called Thai Star, and it has moved from "way out" to "closer in" on Thompson Lane, assuming, of course, that everyone measures distance in relation to the 100 Oaks Home Depot.
After purchasing the East Thompson Lane restaurant from his aunt a year-and-a-half ago, chef-owner Keo Douangtavanh moved Thai Star in October to a spanking-new strip mall, just across the road from The Hearth & Grill Shop. Perched over the busy thoroughfare, the dining room is dazzlingly clean, accented with vibrant pink-orange walls and panels of bamboo. (With a wall of south-facing windows, the room can be oppressively bright at lunchtime, so pick your seating carefully or bring your sunglasses, at least until some window treatments arrive to tone down the glare.)
Chances are good that Douangtavanh's daughter Ananta will be your server, which means you can ask her just about anything about the menu and she'll have a ready recommendation or helpful description. Wondering what Six O'Clock Train Fried Rice is? Or Holy Basil? Ananta will explain that the first is spicy fried rice with a choice of chicken, beef, pork or shrimp, while the second is Thai Star's version of pad ka pao: a basil-and-chili-flavored dish with choice of meat tossed in brown sauce with string beans and served alongside steamed white rice.
She'll also explain that most items are made from scratch — from the crisp egg rolls stuffed with cabbage and glassy noodles that precede the entrees, to the mildly sweet dessert of warm sticky rice laced with sweet coconut cream and topped with slabs of fresh mango. That's a subtle way of warning that your meal could take a little while to prepare, so if you see a crowd already seated in the room, go ahead and treat yourself to a glass of cold and creamy sweet Thai coffee and settle in for a lingering lunch.
(On the other hand, a lot of preparation goes into the food before you even show up. Take the roast duck stir-fry, for example. The whole bird is roasted for three hours in a blend of brown sugar, soy sauce and oyster sauce, before it is sliced and stir-fried with cabbage, zucchini, carrots and onions and served with a bowl of rice.)
Any conversation about Thai food invariably turns to pad Thai, the traditional stir-fried medley of rice noodles, eggs, vegetables and meat. Thai Star delivers a version that deftly straddles the line between sweet and savory, without being too greasy or ketchupy. A generous plate of thin noodles tossed with bean sprouts, green onions and crushed peanuts, with choice of chicken, meat, tofu or shrimp, makes a comforting, bountiful meal. That said, the monochrome beige palette, broken only by a single lime wedge and tiny flecks of cilantro, keeps the pad Thai out of the running for local favorite. In fact, for that reason, we mildly preferred the pad see-ew, which added the crisp and colorful element of fresh broccoli florets to a stir-fried tangle of wide rice noodles.
While pad Thai is generally synonymous with Thai cuisine, pho (noodle soup) is more often associated with Vietnamese dining — at least in Nashville. Also popular in Douangtavanh's native Laos, pho guest-stars on Thai Star's menu, with seafood and beef options. In the former, a deep bowl sloshes with ropes of rice noodles and plump deveined shrimp curling in golden broth, and a side plate carries bouquets of basil and bean sprouts to add to the steaming bath.
Another highlight of our experience was the beef salad, with tender tags of grilled knuckle meat tossed in a spicy-sour blend of sriracha sauce, soy, chili paste and vinegar, with fresh pink onion, carrot shreds, cilantro and tomato. We also enjoyed the spicy Basil Mussel, a variation on pad ka pao, with plump mussels so large that their empty shells could double as shoehorns.
On an extensive menu with at least 63 numbered items, not everything scored 100 percent. Green curry bobbed with mushy zucchini; steamed dumplings were so raw and doughy that we wondered if perhaps they made their way to the table before they made their way to the steamer; som tum (papaya salad) tasted more like fish than fruit; and green peppers overwhelmed any coconut flavor in the tom kha (coconut soup). Even so, the odds are extremely favorable that you'll find something you like. And with lunch starting at $5.95, the price is right for exploring.
Thai Star serves lunch and dinner daily. Delivery is available within five miles and with a $25 minimum order.
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