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December 07, 2011

Soi 4

Som Tam Dominic Armato

Thai in Phoenix is something I've almost intentionally avoided writing about over the past couple of years. When we first arrived, I hit a few of the city's more notable establishments in rapid-fire fashion, became quickly frustrated and put the search on the back burner for a while. It's not that they were bad (well, some of them were), but it was mostly that they simply weren't what I was craving. Though traditional Chinese cuisine has become common enough in the States that most can recognize Americanized Chinese as such, the same isn't really true of Thai. In the same way you can rest assured that any Americanized Chinese delivery place will offer Sweet & Sour Pork, Mongolian Beef and egg rolls thick as cucumbers, so too has a certain kind of standardized menu evolved for Americanized Thai places. And there's nothing wrong with that. I have a special place in my heart for them the same as I do for a well-prepared crisp, spicy and sickly sweet General Tso's chicken every now and again, even if the good general might not recognize it as food, much less Chinese food. But unlike traditional Chinese, which has gotten at least some kind of a foothold in just about every large city, Thai that doesn't conform to that Americanized roadmap is a lot harder to find outside of a few pockets in select cities. I'd started to fear that I just wouldn't find it here, which is why the raves in the wake of Soi 4's opening piqued my curiosity.

Miang KumDominic Armato

The fact that Soi 4 is a California import played no small part in my interest. The original location is in Oakland, and while the Bay Area doesn't boast the kind of Thai community that L.A. does, both burgs are among the better places to find the good stuff. Of course, this is Scottsdale, so when we import Thai, we bring it to a sleek, modern cavern of a space with wide swaths of lounge seating and a lengthy cocktail bar bathed in Tang orange light. But while the decor may be familiar to anybody who does their dining around the 8525X, a quick glance at the menu confirms that it's definitely not culled from the same playbook as most of the other joints around town. Out are mix and match sauces and meats, in are cuts like pork shoulder and belly, the dishes actually feature Thai names, and from top to bottom, the menu is filled with pairings you're unlikely to see elsewhere in Phoenix. This would prove to be both exciting and frustrating.

Kao Pode TodDominic Armato

I dropped by on multiple occasions over a month, and my feelings ran the gamut from thrilled to disappointed, but we'll get to that. Starters were generally strong, led by the excellent Miang Kum, which has gotten quite a bit of love around the intertubes, and with good reason. A mix of shrimp, peanuts, pomelo, toasted coconut, herbs and a sweet sauce made with palm sugar are served atop a trimmed mustard leaf, and the bright, explosive mix of flavors is why it's such a popular street food in Thailand. With the exception of the mustard leaf (Miang Kum is typically served atop a leaf called bai cha plu, a little tricky to come by around these parts), it's a straight-up traditional favorite. I'll let the fact that one of the restaurant's most traditional dishes is also one of its most lauded speak for itself.

Keow Wan RotiDominic Armato

Other starters I tried were quite tasty, though not as outstanding as the Miang Kum. Kao Pode Tod, fried corn cakes, could have had a little more zip and been paired with a more interesting cucumber salad, but they arrived hot and fresh and were certainly enjoyable. Keow Wan Roti, a thick green curry with slices of grilled skirt steak and hot roti, was both tasty and puzzling. I'm not versed enough in the ways of roti to pass judgment other than to say that I found it warm, light and delicious. The curry was pushing into Americanized territory with its thickness and sweetness, and it didn't quite have the lovely fresh, herbal balance of the better green curries I've sampled, but it's still quite tasty and head and shoulders above anything else I've tried in town. What I find puzzling here is the decision to serve naked strips of beef alongside the curry and the roti. Dipping roti into a green beef curry is entirely Thai, but separating the beef from the curry robs each of the opportunity to contribute to the other. The Western analogue would be like making Beef Bourguignon by dipping roasted chunks of beef in a wine reduction rather than braising them together. What's the point other than to make a hands-on presentation? And is that more important than the sacrifice in flavor?

Yum Makuer YaoDominic Armato

Salads were generally quite good, though the iconic Som Tum was my least favorite. I can't say it isn't good so much as it isn't soulful, so clean that it's bordering on clinical. There's no fire or funk, and I found my thoughts drifting back to the versions pounded with pickled crab, lending those bright flavors a briny counterpoint, unfair as it may be to simply wish the dish was something it isn't. The Yum Makuer Yao, on the other hand, was delightful, ground chicken and prawns tossed with a beautifully balanced lime and coconut dressing, heady with spice and fresh herbs, and set against a gentle, supple, almost sweet whole grilled eggplant. The salad on top was well-executed and would have been a winner on its own, but the two together made for a bright and full flavor that was really exceptional.

Yum PladookDominic Armato

Also delightful was the Yum Pladook, though it featured yet another departure from tradition that made it less, not more. It's a salad that combines hot, crisp fried catfish with a cool salad of green mango on top. The salad was wonderful, slivers of green papaya lending a fruity character both sweet and sour, combined with shallots, herbs and a light, well-balanced dressing, and finished with cashews. Beneath, the catfish was piping hot, beautifully fried, tender and sweet. But it wasn't Yum Pladook. Normally, the fish is first par-cooked and then lightly shredded before being fried, giving it a crisp lattice-like texture that's not only pleasing on its own, but also grabs the dressing of the salad above. Were they afraid that people would demand a whole, large piece of fish to feel they were getting value for their dollar? Did they decide that was too much effort? I can't say. But I know it wasn't a better dish for the alteration, and it was so frustrating because it was quite delicious, just not what it could have -- and should have -- been.

Pla Sahm RotDominic Armato

Unfortunately, the front half of the menu seems to be the stronger half, at least based on what I tried. Pla Sahm Rot, a whole fried fish in Thai "three flavor sauce" got half the equation wonderfully right, and half the equation terribly wrong. The fish was fabulous, fried whole to crisp/chewy texture around the edges, but maintaining soft, perfectly cooked flesh within. But the sauce tasted of one flavor, and that flavor was sugar. This is a dish that's normally sweet, but Thai food is all about balance. Hot, sour, salty, sweet. All need to be present, and all need to work with one another. But this was just painfully cloying, and while elements like tamarind, chiles and ginger were present, they were obliterated by a sticky sauce that lingered, and not in a good way.

Goong MakhamDominic Armato

The Goong Makham was similarly challenged, and featured a really puzzling twist. The stir-fried prawns were just fine, and a tangle of fried shallots on top was a tasty textural element. But the sauce was, much like the fish above, a cloying mess of sugar. Yes, this dish is usually sweet. But while its English billing is usually that of "Tamarind Shrimp," and though the Soi 4 menu describes it as a tamarind sauce, it was remarkable how little tamarind flavor was in the dish. It was crying out for some sour tamarind balance, but it simply tasted of sugar. Even stranger -- and here I tread lightly because I'm a long way from being an authority on Thai and, you know, there are always variants on these dishes -- the sauce was studded with chunks of onion and bell pepper. Onion, sure, but bell pepper? I've never seen that in this dish before, and it's almost as though they were intentionally referencing the stereotypical Americanized sweet sour pork... a reference that was only reinforced by the overpowering sweetness. Unless you're a hummingbird, this is not a good dish.

Kang BpetKang Kua MuDominic Armato

The curries looked so great on paper that the reality was a terrible letdown, especially considering that the green curry starter was quite good. The Kang Bpet, pan-seared duck with a pineapple red curry, took the now familiar tack of cooking the meat apart from the curry only to later combine them, and the result was tough, overcooked duck in a curry with little fire and less balance. I was even more excited to try the Kang Kua Mu, another red curry variant with pork shoulder and kabocha squash. Again, the balance was way off. Rather than accentuating each other, the flavors became muddy. And the squash, a nice pair with the curry, was just too much of the dish. If it were an accent, smaller pieces, or somehow worked into the curry, I think it could have been fabulous. But it was simply too much. The curries weren't a total loss. The Kua Kling Mu, slivered pork shoulder stir-fried with asparagus and a dry, oily red curry was delicious. It had heat, it had funk, it had balance... and surprise, it had a very simple, traditional feel and flavor.

Kua Kling MuDominic Armato

I know I've used the word traditional an awful lot here. I'm not in the camp that believes traditional is automatically better. Traditional dishes have survived the crucible longer (that's why they're traditional), which means they usually have something going for them. But new is great too! There's nothing like a creative, effective spin on an old dish. Based on my meals here, however, it seems as though the kitchen at Soi 4 gets itself into trouble when it steps off the path. Though it bills itself and is being lauded as such, this is by no means a traditional Thai restaurant. Recognizing that "traditional" is not a digital state, it's certainly more towards the traditional end of the spectrum than anything else I've yet had in town, but really, it's more Cal-Thai. Or at the very least, it's... creative. But it says something, I think, that the more traditional dishes are the stronger ones, and the non-traditional choices are the ones mucking things up. And it's maddening because when these dishes hit, they're on. Some of them are great, and at their best they're operating on a different plane than most of the other Thai restaurants in town. But even when the food is good (and often it's not), they're not serving Thai. What they're serving is Scottsdale Thai by way of Oakland. And that's not without merit, and if the menu were more consistently great, I wouldn't have a bad thing to say about the place. But there's a reason I'm still desperately pining for the real thing.

Soi 4 Bangkok Eatery
www.soifour.com
8787 N. Scottsdale Road
Scottsdale, AZ 85253
480-778-1999
Mon - Thu11:30 AM - 2:30 PM5 PM - 9:30 PM
Fri11:30 AM - 2:30 PM5 PM - 10 PM
Sat 5 PM - 10 PM
Sun 5 PM - 9:30 PM

Comments

During my stay in Thailand, I became quite convinced that the Thai are the best cooks in the world. Finding good Thai is a joy indeed, and I am sorry to hear this restaurant was spotty.

Can I ask what other Thai places in the Phoenix area you've been to, if you remember?

Jessica... Thai Lahna, Tottie's (I hesitate to include this one), Touch of Thai, Lao Thai, Malee's Thai Bistro, Thai Spices, Thai Basil and three or four more the names of which I can't remember. I would enthusiastically welcome the news that I've been to all the wrong places. There are a few on my short list for which I'm hopeful. There's nothing that jumps off the menu, but I've heard good things about Nunthaporn. I put Sala Thai on my short list, but I can't remember why. Recommendation, maybe? Weird menu over there. Thai E-San's on the list as well. I would *gladly* take recommendations if you've got 'em. Most of the ones I've been to were recs, but by god, I'll keep trying :-)

Sorry I'm so late in replying. I actually haven't been to too many Thai places myself. I've been to Thai Basil and it was disappointing. Heard good things about Line Thai, which is in Sun City of all places, and someday I hope to get around to trying a few places near to where I live (in Glendale), Siam Thai being top of my list.

I know Line Thai! We pass by it every time we drive out to visit my wife's family. Every time we drive by, I think of how hilarious and awesome it would be if there were a great Thai restaurant out in Sun City, of all places. I've wanted to check it out forever, but have never gotten around to it. Guess I'd better make it happen :-)

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