Thai Taste Restaurant
395 Haywood Ln. 834-9250
Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.
A couple of weeks ago, I was having coffee at Fidoremember, act globally, drink locallywith two chefs from San Francisco. Three guesses what we talked about. Within the course of our conversation, we discussed the remarkable growth of the ethnic population in Nashville and its subsequent infusion of new and exotic culinary choices. One of the chefs, a native Nashvillian gone for several years, couldn’t believe that we can now count not one, but three Somali restaurants, an Ethiopian restaurant, five Indian, several Middle Eastern, and a plethora of Asian eateries, from Chinese to Vietnamese. I mentioned that I had picked up a menu from a new Thai restaurant, which at first glance seemed more extensive and genuine than what has so far been assimilated by Nashville’s cautious tastes.
One of the chefs raised his eyebrows, and the other, a tad snobbishly I thought, asked, “Really? Do they have pork stomach with pig blood?” Not that I remembered, I replied. The very idea, besides making me a little squeamish, raised several questions in my mind. Does one eat the pork stomach, or is it merely used as a vessel for the blood? Do the stomach and the blood come from the same pig, or are there certain pigs that have tastier blood than others? Does one drink the blood or use it as a condiment? None of the possibilities tempted me in the least, and I am almost insatiably food-curious. I wonder just how many people here would order pork stomach with pig blood even if it were available.
Thai Taste may not serve pork stomach and pig blood, but it offers plenty of tantalizing choices for Thai food lovers looking for something new and different, or another option for filling up on a more conventional repast like tom ka kai, satay, and pla lard prig. Thai Taste is a new restaurant in an old, out-of-the way location. The small cinderblock building on Haywood Lane, one block off Nolensville Road, was most recently owned by Monekeo and Khambay Vongsamphanh, Laotians who came to Nashville via Thailand in 1979. Ten years later, they opened Vientiane, a market and restaurant that catered mainly to fellow Southeast Asian immigrants. After a decade of running their business seven days a week, the Vongsamphanhs recently retired. Their childrentwo daughters in the local banking industry and a son who lives in New York Cityweren’t interested in taking over, so about six months ago, the building was sold to three sisters from Thailand: Sumalee Pongpituck, Allo Filson, and Ajaree Amawajanakul.
Where the Vientiane Market was dark and dingy with chipped Formica tables and an assortment of rickety chairs, Thai Taste is light and cheerful with contemporary wooden furnishings and walls painted soothing pale shades of green and blue. The tables are now cloth-covered, and aesthetically pleasing touches abound: linens folded like fans into pretty napkin rings, bamboo sleeves for the chopsticks, framed prints on the walls, fresh flowers on every table, shelving units stocked with arty reading material for solo diners, even whimsical soap dispensers in the squeaky-clean bathrooms.
The feminine touch extends to the kitchen, the domain of chef Poo Korakot, who has a food degree from a Bangkok university and who trained in major hotels there and in California. Her flavors are subtle yet distinct, and she doesn’t shy away from heat. If you ask for a dish to be prepared hot, be ready for some fire. I tend to eschew extra hot while reviewing to avoid scorching my taste buds, but I couldn’t resist testing my mettle on a few dishes.
None of the starters were that unusual, though all were excellent renditions of old familiars like fresh or fried spring rolls, stuffed chicken wings, or the bite-sized pastry cups filled with shrimp and veggies. The kai yad saia rectangular omelet folded over ground pork, carrots, and peasis perfect for sharing. Poo’s version of tom ka kai soup is much lighter than the typical, a broth chock-full of mushrooms and white chicken meat, with the lemongrass and lime leaves taking the spotlight away from the coconut milk. If you care to sample a different soup, try the poh tak, with mussels, scallops, shrimp, clams, and crab in a lemony broth accented by fresh basil leaves.
Salads are called yum-yum on some Thai menus, and I couldn’t agree more. I love Thai salads, which are to American salads what chicken satay is to chicken fingers. If the three we sampled are any indication, it would be hard to go wrong, as long as you are fond of sautéed squid, grilled shrimp, pork, or beef, tossed with just-squeezed lemon and lime juice, fresh chopped tomatoes, cucumber and onion, with mint leaves and plenty of hot red pepper. Our favorite was the incredible fresh papaya salad, a masterful balance of simultaneous hot and cool.
Unless you enter Thai Taste with a clear idea of what you want, the dizzying array of entreescurry, pork, poultry, beef, fish, vegetarian, chef’s specialties, and noodle dishescould lead to choice paralysis. The deep-fried whole red snapper in curry sauce and coconut milk, or the sea bass fillet in ginger soy sauce? The shrimp, scallop, squid, and mussels stir-fried in hot sauce with a bushel of fresh basil, or the chicken with baby spinach leaves and peanut sauce? Adding to your delightful dilemma will be a table card listing three or more daily specials. We couldn’t resist trying onechicken with egg noodles in curry paste and coconut milk. The stir-fried collard greenswhich bore a remarkable resemblance to broccoli rabein oyster sauce was a unanimous table favorite, and I highly recommend it as a side dish to any entree. We also liked the yen ta foe, a seafood and spinach noodle dish in a broth delicately flavored with sweet and sour sauce.
Here’s my advice. Go with a large, adventurous group, order lots of things, and start passing. By all means, get at least one, maybe two, papaya salads, called som tum on the menu. Try at least one thing flavored Lao-style (very hot) and see if you can take it. Ask the server to recommend something he or she especially likes and then try it, no matter what it is. Call ahead and make a special request for kanoum san, a firm, custard-like coconut dessert eaten in layers. Avoid the easily identified fish or beef balls, which come in some of the noodle dishes. And if you want pig blood in pork stomach, try San Francisco.