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Thursday, June 21,2012

A pleasant surprise for Thai

By Clay Fong

Thai Avenue Rice and Noodles presents a textbook case of truth in advertising. First of all, it serves Thai food, notably rice and noodles. Secondly, it’s located on Boulder’s College Avenue. This straightforward naming scheme carries over to the no-frills experience that conceals a top-notch Southeast Asian experience.

The ambience here leans towards the utilitarian, given its Uni Hill location in a basement food court. Service is simple ordering at the counter. But what it lacks in some categories it makes up for in affordability, as well as quantity and quality. For instance, there’s a $7.95 lunch special consisting of a fountain drink, a spring roll or wonton, and an entree.

The no-MSG menu serves entrees like fried rice selections and stir-fries with a Thai flair, available with a choice of proteins, ranging from tofu to shrimp. Curries are amply represented, with a selection that includes everything from coconut milk and lemongrass-infused Tom Kha to chile-rich Panang. Noodle plates include wide drunken noodles as well as Pad Sie Eiw, or street-style strands, prepared with egg and veggies.

To wash everything down, colleague Carin and I started off with voluminous cups of $2 Thai iced tea. As with most versions, this wasn’t a beverage for those who shy away from sweetness. But it also had the haunting floral quality, stemming from such spices as cardamom and star anise, that I seek in this drink to complement the sweet creaminess.

Next up was a $4 bowl of Tom Yum Koong soup, scented with lime and chile. Not too spicy, nor as complex as its coconut milk-laced cousins, it was flavorful, but not so strong that it overshadowed the shrimp. A bevy of mushrooms contributed weight and added an earthy note in a sea of tanginess.

“You can really taste the basil,” Carin said of her fried tofu-dotted $6.65 red curry. Unlike other examples, the fresh flavor of the herb subtly perfumed the low-key heat of this medium-spice-level selection. Thai cooking is a multifold balancing act combining elements of sweet and spicy, and this choice, accompanied by perfectly steamed rice, stood out as a shining example. Bits of red and green bell pepper further enhanced our fresh impression of this dish. Carin was also struck by the “huge portions” that left her with enough to take home.

Wearing my traditionalist’s cap, I opted for the $6.65 chicken Pad Thai, one of my favorite dishes. Like Carin, I ordered this at the medium spice level, and I’d likely go for “hot” or, if I’m feeling particularly ambitious, “Thai hot” the next go-round. But a more modest level of heat might have been advantageous, as it enabled me to better appreciate the bite of the tamarind sauce and the zesty lime highlights. Equally important was the fact that the rice noodles had the proper amount of give, and a sheen of richness from the egg. I also noticed Carin poaching bites from my plate when she thought I wasn’t looking.

Despite Thai Avenue’s humble appearance, quick service setup and rockbottom prices, it unquestionably stands as one of Boulder’s top choices for Thai. I’ve certainly paid more for less at other eateries, and I suspect this food court standout may become my Thai go-to spot.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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