When the Mix Zone Cafe opened in late 2008, my first thought was of more Thai mediocrity — to go along with the ubiquitous Japanese, Mexican and pizza mediocrity that infects almost every strip mall in town. The location itself, at the corner of Rancho and Charleston (one of those time-worn centers known for inadequate parking and stores that hit their peak around the time Jimmy Carter was in office), hardly inspires confidence. Step inside, though, and you find a tiny oasis of tranquility, decorated on a shoestring, but charming and comfortable, with a vibe that says someone cares in the kitchen.
- Mix Zone Cafe
- 2202 W. Charleston Blvd., 388-0708.
- Monday-Saturday, 10:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m.
That someone is Dan Coughlin, who looks about as Thai as Van Morrison. Don't let appearances fool you. As the son of Nikki Bujadham, he grew up in the kitchens of the King & I restaurants around town, learning the secrets of Thai cooking. Coughlin brings a certain hip sensibility to the place — the "mix" refers to the eclectic assortment of background tunes — but his food is firmly rooted in Thai classics. Those classics are displayed on a huge, backlit menu mural that dominates the décor, giving novices some color-pictured ordering assistance and others something to look at if grooving to The Ting Tings isn't their thing.
Coughlin's approach represents the kind of elemental, home-style cooking that made this cuisine so popular. No new ground is plowed, but standards like spring rolls, chicken satay and spicy sesame wings come to the table possessing real snap. It's hard to resist ordering a second round of mint chicken pot stickers after you've dipped your last one into the special, sweet and vinegary Thai soy sauce.
As good as those are, it's Dan's Flat Noodle Salad that will grab and hold your attention. Dressed with his Thai-waterfall sauce (fish sauce with lemon, palm sugar, chilies, onions and cilantro), it is a reminder of all that is good and holy about Thai food — a perfect blend of heat, tart and sweet over smooth, starchy noodles and unctuous egg. Order that salad and a three-color curry (a blend of red, yellow and green Thai curries) and you won't remember you're anywhere near a strip mall.