Tasting food can be like looking at art — one person's Picasso is another's Panda Palace.
So when local food critic and self-proclaimed Spring Mountain Road connoisseur John Curtas started a debate with Wazuzu chef and Weekly blogger Jet Tila over the best Thai restaurant in the Valley, there was only one way to settle things — a dinner duel.
Rather than wielding knives — Tila would win that face-off handily — we picked up forks and spoons and set out to taste each man's pick with a pair of back-to-back dinners that would test not only the restaurants, but our capacity for food and ability to stomach Thai spice. Besides Jet and John, along for the ride was Jet's better half, Sophie, and Sammy Morse, chef of Zoozacrackers at the Wynn.
Our first stop was John's pick, Ocha Thai, a brightly lit restaurant that shares a parking lot with a divey motel (complete with wedding chapel!) and sits in the shadow of the Stratosphere. Atmosphere is a moot point here — there is none — but as far as food goes, there's plenty. The menu covers enough Thai staples to feel familiar while venturing into more authentic territory, too.
The first benefit of doing a Thai dinner with a Thai chef is being able to order in Thai. No matter how good your knowledge of the sweet and spicy cuisine, you simply cannot sound like a true authority without ordering in its native tongue. Jet's family moved from China to Thailand in the 1940s, Thai-izing their last name, Tse, which became Tilakamonkul. Now in the U.S., it's been altered once again, often abbreviated to just Tila.
The second benefit of doing Thai with a Thai chef is having someone to explain the implications of ordering, say, the green papaya salad with crab vs. the same salad with shrimp. The crab, which is served cured, is a guaranteed stomachache: delicious, but dangerous. This is important information for anyone who doesn't work as a restroom attendant. We played it safe with the shrimp. Also on order were pork jerky, chicken larb, beef waterfall salad and po tag seafood soup.
The standouts at Ocha were almost unanimously the pork jerky and the papaya salad. The marinated pork had the same texture as normal jerky with a strong burst of smoky flavor. Thai-style jerky comes with a dipping sauce, and Ocha's was thick and tasty, made with plenty of shrimp paste. Like meaty little French fries, these suckers go down almost too easily and are a perfect snack to munch on while looking over the extensive menu.
Ocha's veggies and herbs, however, were less impressive. The papaya salad deliciously matched sweet with sour, but our waterfall salad and po tag soup lacked the brightness and punch that makes the best Thai food so unbelievably appealing. The soup base, Jet commented, tasted canned.
(An ode to the value stocks ensued. I'll spare you the details.)
Next, our merry bunch of eaters were on to Krung Siam, a dressed-up Thai joint on the corner of Spring Mountain and Valley View Boulevard with a slick interior, elegant platings and hours (and a 2-for-1 Singha beer special) that cater to a late-night crowd. Krung was Jet's choice, his go-to spot outside his own kitchen for serious Thai food.
We ordered up a selection of the same dishes — pork jerky, waterfall salad, chicken larb and papaya salad — from Ocha, making sure to request them Thai hot at what a local would consider a medium. Thai medium, then, is American "holy crap, I need more water!" John managed to consume two Thai iced teas, two beers and maybe a half dozen glasses of water after biting into a fierce chile in the papaya salad.
Spice wasn't the only thing different at Krung Siam. Slightly more expensive, the dishes here tasted fresher. The flavors of cilantro, fresh onion and citrus came through on the spicy waterfall salad, and the dishes were generally seasoned with a more attentive hand. Chicken larb lacked the intensity of Ocha's take, but the jerky here, still addictive, was far more tender. The papaya salad was comparable to our first go-round, but so spicy that after a bite or two it sat like an enemy at the table.
Added to our blow-for-blow ordering was a giant grilled squid with dipping sauce and Thai fried rice with soft shell crab. Both came served on massive platters — it would take a basketball team of squid lovers to come anywhere near polishing off that calamari — and the squid was prepared simply with a sauce of garlic, chile, fish sauce and more garlic. "You could close your eyes and be on a beach in Thailand," Jet said of the classically prepared squid. John protested that the massive chunks of garlic in the dipping sauce drowned out any balance of flavor.
Three hours after sitting down for dinner No. 1, we sat back to digest the dinner duel. With bolder flavors and fresher ingredients, Krung came out on top, but on dishes like the larb, jerky and papaya salad, Ocha put up strong competition at cheaper prices. At either one you'll find real, Thai-style cuisine that even a Tilakamonkul and a seasoned critic can appreciate. Shame on you if you order the Pad Thai.