The Design District’s newest eatery can feel like a comic book adventure
The name of Pakpao, a Thai restaurant in the up-and-coming Design District that opened mid-summer, look, at first glance, like the graphics on an episode of the old Batman TV series: BAM! PHOOSH! PAK! PAO! Of course it’s not, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t superheroics going on in the kitchen.
There is a touch of the comic-book world when you’re talking about Thai cuisine anyway. The food is often distinguished by its bold, occasionally otherworldly flavor profiles: Chilis, herbs, peppers, intense aromatics burst on the tongue like Superman flying through a cinder block wall. But that really only tells half of the story.
Like the Marvel and DC universes, there is something in the larder for every palate. Authentic Thai food reveals complexities that interplay with each other like a pas de deux, creating a harmonious flow from one flavor to the next. Yes, peanuts — a staple in the cuisine — have an unmistakable taste, aroma and texture. But a good Thai peanut sauce tastes less like licking the spoon out of a jar of Skippy and more like a nutty demi-glace undergirding a structured meal, where vegetables form the foundation and a meat protein unites the elements. (As the only Southeast Asian nation never to be a colony of a European power, its flavors have been influenced but not dictated by Western influences.)
Located on the parking lot side of the building that houses Oak (the two restaurants share ownership), there’s a hole-in-the-wall quality that may lead you to underestimate it. You do so at your peril.
The space is smaller than the Batcave, but brighter, more open. The vibrant green banquettes and butcher-block tabletops are as fresh as a mint julep.
When you open the door to step in, you’re in the dining room — you can practically touch every available table without moving your feet. That means if you don’t have a reservation, you have to choose between the uncanopied patio of the bar. Go for the bar of course, where the cocktail menu is worth a visit on its own, with inventive, Asian-themed concoctions like a tamarind Pimm’s and a “Siam Sling” (Singapore is isla non grata here, I suppose).
After sitting down in the intimate, buzzy space (the kitchen is largely open), there’s still a lot of work to do. The menu is extensive, and can be a little overwhelming, especially when you get your heart set on something and it’s not available. But there’s always something else to rescue you.
The first item to impress me here was gange phet ped, or duck with red curry ($14). The curry was spicy without being five-alarm, the duck fatty and tender. Bright, fresh herbs, which seems lightly fried, dotted the top for a colorful presentation.
The salmon ($17), also garnished with crisp leafs, levitated enticingly above a pool of green curry, spotted with a float of chili oil. A delicate glaze on the fist provided a welcome crunch, while the supple flesh melted on my taste buds.
My dining companion at one visit, a well-traveled eater, declared the pad see ew gai ($12) among the best he’s had here. There’s no denying that it exploded with layers of flavor in a generous portion, the sauce clinging to bits of well-cooked chicken and chewy ribbon noodles.
Octopus is a dodgy item in the best of restaurants; it can go wrong quickly. The preparation here is perfect: Creamy without becoming rubbery and mildly seasoned, but the satay, despite a heavy sauce, nevertheless seemed dry and overcooked.
Mussels are among the simplest dishes to prepare: Be fresh, and remove from the steam the moment they pop open. That means setting them apart from the crowd requires a memorable broth. Pakpao’s delivers on all counts.
Asian desserts have rarely been the highlights of a meal. The selections here are adequate, but not the reason to enjoy Pakpao. After all, you buy a copy of Action Comics for Superman, not Jimmy Olsen.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 25, 2013.