I approached the corner of Fairview Avenue and Eagle Road with a gnawing hunger that rivaled the intensity of the mid-summer heat. On all sides, strip malls stretched out like a hellacious mirage. Luckily, a new restaurant caught my eye--Thai Basil: Authentic Thai Cuisine.
It seemed like a challenge. Would the menu consist of the usual Treasure Valley Thai suspects--pad Thai and an assortment of vaguely Chinese dishes that taste like they were freshly dumped from a can? Or would the spot indeed offer more authentic Thai fare? The answer: Yes and no.
Thai Basil--decked out with burgundy and butter-yellow walls, cherry wood tables, a row of giant fake bamboo plants and dangling glass lanterns--is owned by the same family that runs Pad Thai House on Five Mile Road. Though the spot serves ubiquitous American-Asian dishes like egg rolls, Generals Tso's chicken and Mongolian beef, the menu is also sprinkled with a few delightfully delicious exceptions. The dish that piqued my interest was the som tum, or pounded green papaya salad ($8.25), available in Thai or Lao style. Having sampled the salad a few times at Portland, Ore.'s popular Pok Pok, I was curious to see how it held up.
As it turns out, I thought this one was better. Crunchy shreds of un-ripe papaya mingled with shards of carrot, snips of bright long beans, hunks of tomato and tiny, chewy dried shrimp. The Thai-style version featured a blend of lime juice, garlic, ample glugs of fish sauce, palm sugar and a surprising amount of Thai chilies. It hit all of the flavors: sour, savory, sweet and spicy. And damn was it spicy. Though I ordered the salad with medium heat, there was an even more sinister "Thai Hot" option, which cautioned: "management accepts no responsibility for side effects."
Blissed out after crunching my way through a good portion of the searing salad, I spotted another dish I had to try: the honey roasted half duck ($13.25). A beautiful arrangement of duck parts, moist and lightly pink, arrived with a glistening, red-brown skin sprinkled with green onions. But eating it was a little less pretty. Since the bird had been chopped with a sharp knife into chunks, each piece came with bits of sinew and bone that had to be worked around. After gnawing a few pieces of flavorful and perfectly fatty duck like a chicken wing, I packaged up the remainder and took it home to be tackled later.
Speaking of wings, on a return lunch visit I went straight for the Thai hot wings ($7.95), hoping the spot would trump Pok Pok on another dish. Sadly, the small, lightly fried wings were coated in a puddle of generic, sweet, garlic-y brown sauce with wilted green onions draped over the top. We asked for a side of bright-red chili oil and a couple of lime wedges, which went a long way to amp up the flavor and cut the sauce's sticky sweetness.
The yum woon sen salad ($11.50) was much more varied in flavor and texture: Bean-thread noodles slithered around bits of ground pork, a couple of tail-on shrimp, shreds of purple cabbage, shaved carrots, cilantro leaves, green onions and lemongrass. The mountainous dish was ample enough to share with a few people.
But the best part of our return visit was another rendezvous with duck, in the form of the Thai curry duck ($11.50). The intensely rich red curry coconut curry broth was spiced with fresh Thai basil and Kaffir lime leaves. Pops of sweet cherry tomato played off the light snap of long beans, slices of moist duck and warm hunks of pineapple. It was the kind of lunch you need a nap after. And in this heat, that's never a bad idea.