Every college campus has its token Thai restaurant. At the University of Texas at Austin, where I went to school, Thai Noodles, Etc. was a slightly off-the-beaten-path gem with a serene porch. Hidden under a canopy of trees down an alley off the main drag, it was the ideal spot to grab a quick rice vermicelli bowl and a cold Thai iced tea, while cramming for an exam.
If Thai Nalyn had been my go-to campus Thai joint, I'd be close to wrapping up my doctorate at this point. Chilling innocuously in a building on University Drive near Boise Avenue, Thai Nalyn's underwhelming exterior conceals a cozy, even slightly romantic, interior. Valentine-red, gauzy drapes cascade down large windows that overlook cars zipping by on Capitol Boulevard. On a recent weekday evening, the restaurant was sprinkled with couples speaking softly and basking in the marigold glint of the yawning sun.
My dinner date and I slid into a tall two-top table in the back of the restaurant. Mere seconds, it seemed, after we ordered some rice-wrapped shrimp rolls ($7.25), they were on the table looking like six tiny, Renaissance fair-style fried turkey legs. Gripping a roll gingerly by its fanned-out tail, I plunged it into a sweet, chopped peanut-laden sauce. While the sauce added favorably to the flavor profile of the fried shrimp, it wasn't a crutch. The shrimp had been marinated with citrus and spices, allowing all of the appetizer's competing flavors--sweet, salty, spicy, crispy, bouncy--to melt together effortlessly.
Before we had polished off the app, we decided to scoot over to an adjacent four-person table. Man, was that a good idea. Not only does Thai Nalyn do the college crowd justice with low prices, their portion sizes triple-dog-dare you not to take home leftovers.
As our main dishes flowed out of the kitchen in rapid succession--tom kha kai soup ($8.95), massamun curry ($9.95), phad pik khing ($9.95)--it began to feel like we were guests seated at the Beast's table. A steaming mound of rice ($1) and a chilled glass of burgundy ($2.50) were the final additions to our massive banquet, and they squeezed tightly into the last vacant spots on the table.
My date ladled us each out a pungent bowl of the tom kha kai, and we sat, puzzled, as hunks of tomato splashed out along with the mushrooms, lemongrass, galangal, Thai basil and oily red broth. As tom kha kai fans used to a creamy white coconut broth and no tomatoes, we wondered if there might've been a soup switch-up in the kitchen. But as we slurped up successive spoonfuls, the very mild coconut taste began to claw through the other competing flavors. My date enjoyed this variation and began dreaming up a tom kha kai-style bloody Mary, while I moved on to our other dishes.
Thai Nalyn offers a spice gradient of one to five with each entree. Unsure of the intensity of their rating system, we kept it safe with threes across the board. After heaping a mound of the yellow coconut curry tofu onto my plate, I realized we'd made a wise choice. Unlike many of its Boise ethnic food peers, Thai Nalyn knows how to bring the heat. While the sweetness of the coconut and the crunch of the snap peas and peanuts kept the spice at bay momentarily, it eventually came out roaring. The lemon chili tofu with mushrooms and green beans had the same amount of heat, but no creaminess to quell the burn. Even with the lingering bite, we could tell both dishes were well cooked--juicy mushrooms, freshly steamed snap peas, non-mealy potatoes--and seasoned with care. Like all good Thai food, each pungent ingredient came together to form a marching band of flavor.
As the other tables closed out and left, I watched our young server crack open a textbook and start to study. Now that I know Boise State has a superior campus Thai joint, going back to school doesn't sound half bad.
--Tara Morgan is ready to give it the old college Thai.
Boise Weekly sends two reviewers to every restaurant we review. Read what our other reviewer had to say about Thai Nalyn here.