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New Thai place still finding its feet

SANTA FE, N.M. — I fell in love with Thai food (well, the wimp version with mild spicing) during visits with a friend who lives on Hawaii’s Big Island. So I was excited when I learned that a new Thai place had opened in Santa Fe in the building that formerly housed Five Star Burgers, situated in the DeVargas Center parking lot.

Arriving well before 6 p.m. on a Tuesday, I was surprised to see the place rapidly filling up, so I asked to be seated at one of the few open tables while I awaited my friend. (The bistro does accept reservations, a server later told me, so I would recommend you make one.)

Perusing the menu, I noticed that it lacked the fresh fish and fruits, and occasionally more exotic ingredients that enhance the Thai menus in our 50th state, but I was not surprised. This is the landlocked desert, after all. The menu did include the basics, from starters to curries to stir-fries to soups and salads. There was plenty to choose from.

My friend and I decided to start out with the house sampler ($13), for which you can choose three tastes of the various appetizers available. We went for chicken pot stickers (steamed), the spring roll and Firecracker shrimp. They arrived in a reasonable period of time, with a sweet-and-sour dipping sauce on the side.

Our appreciation for them was mixed, but mostly favorable. The pot stickers were a good rendition of that common dish, as were the crisp and fresh spring rolls (although the shrimp included within the wrapping was barely noticeable). The Firecracker shrimp, though, almost appeared burned. The shrimp was dry and the breading was a little too thick – maybe it isn’t the best idea to deep-fry delicate shrimp. And while the name suggested a spicy kick, I didn’t detect any.

My friend chose an entree from the stir-fried portion of the menu: Pad Cashew Nuts with chicken and brown rice ($14). The dish included cashews, sweet peas, water chestnuts, carrots, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, broccoli and garlic served in a brown sauce. The rice, served on the side, helped buffer the soy flavor in the sauce, in my friend’s opinion, but I thought my sampling was fine even without the rice. The veggies retained a snappy crispness and the flavors mixed nicely. This dish, like many others on the menu, allows you to choose the protein to be included in it. Kha Nom Jeen Kaeng Khiao Wan (green curry with pork and rice noodles) ($14) was my choice, and I was not disappointed. The sweet coconut milk, basil and lime leaves gave me the taste I was seeking (although I may order it “medium” next time instead of “mild,” just to see how the extra heat changes the flavors). Bamboo, jalapeño and red bell peppers rounded out the curry. On the side were shaved carrots, cabbage and green onions that I happily kept adding to the bowl. The only downside, in my eyes, was that I could barely taste the thin slices of pork – perhaps bolder chunks of meat would be preferable.

Dessert was a bit less satisfying. I was disappointed to learn that ice cream, made on the premises, was not available. The restaurant had been so busy since news articles about its opening were printed that the staff hadn’t had time to make enough ice cream, we were informed. Aw, nuts!

But our waitress said they did have her favorite dessert: Banana rice cake ($6). She said the kids at the table behind ours had really liked it. What the heck – we decided to try it. It came as two fingers of sticky rice enclosing pieces of banana and black beans, with coconut milk poured over it. Well, I couldn’t taste any flavoring beyond the rice, and it was way too gummy for me. My guest also noted that, while she likes banana dishes, we was “not enamored” of this one.

Our server expressed surprise at our lack of enthusiasm and apologized (but didn’t offer to remove the charge for it).

The restaurant opened relatively recently, so some of the wrinkles might be ironed out over time. I do want to return and try several other items on the menu, such as the salmon mango or the green papaya salads, as well as the various curries and stir-fries. It’s definitely worth a try.