September wound down ominously in Bernalillo County as COVID-19 numbers reversed an almost two-month downward trend. The news was particularly bad for the restaurant business. Rapid responses, or the testing of employees at businesses where cases have been reported, more than tripled at restaurants in the latter half of September.
The news coaxed me back into takeout mode. On a recent Saturday night, I put in an order at Thai Spice, a 5-year-old restaurant on Paseo del Norte at Wyoming. It was an easy decision: I had been pining for Thai food and its spicy chilies, fragrant curries and savory, chewy noodles for weeks, and Thai Spice is one of the more highly regarded places of that genre in the city.
The woman who took my order told me it would be ready in 25 minutes. Twenty minutes later, I arrived to find the restaurant doing a brisk business. A few parties ate at tables on the sidewalk in front, where roadrunners purportedly queue up for leftovers. Inside, a few couples dined while a line of people waited for their takeout orders. The counter and kitchen were a frenzy of activity as the phone rang frequently and more people arrived to pick up orders.
Getting there early gave me time to take in the riot of decorations inside the spacious dining room. Colorful umbrellas and globe lights hang from the ceiling, and knickknacks line seemingly every available surface. A highlight is the display case at a corner near the entrance that holds uncannily realistic wax replicas of some of the dishes on the menu.
Speaking of the menu. I can vouch for the egg rolls, as they used to be my go-to option for work potlucks. Both the pork version (three for $6.95), with silver noodles, vegetables and ground pork, and the thinner vegetable version (three for $5.95) are excellent.
Prices at Thai Spice are a generally on the high end for Thai restaurants in Albuquerque, a possible consequence of the rents along the Paseo del Norte corridor. Most of the items are gluten-free, and there are some vegan options.
The salads, priced at $9.95 to $14.95, are not your garden-variety piles of lettuce and tomato. There’s a shrimp version, a squid variation and larb, a fiery salad with chicken, ground beef or pork. Papaya salad ($9.95), a Thai food mainstay, presents the usual shreddings of green papaya with tomatoes and onions heaped generously over lettuce. The unripe fruit, bland and crunchy, makes a good substrate for the sauce of lime juice infused with Thai chilies, and palm sugar takes some of the edge off the heat. Sweet, salty, spicy and sour, it’s prototypical Thai food.
As Thai curries go, massaman is a bit of an outlier, with a spice profile that reflects a Persian influence. Thai Spice’s version ($12.95) is a hearty mix of potatoes, peanuts, tomatoes and onions in a pale orange broth that smells faintly of cinnamon. The creamy, gritty base of curry paste and coconut milk picked up a slight sweet and sour taste from tamarind. People often add beef to this, but I liked the brininess that the plump shrimp ($1 extra) brought to the dish.
While massaman curry dates back hundreds of years in Thai history, Pad Thai originated in the mid-20th century. Although the dish is more Chinese than Thai, it became one of Thailand’s national dishes. Thai Spice’s version ($10.95) is commendably chewy, if not particularly spicy, with crunch from crushed peanuts and from slaw served with it. The accompanying pieces of chicken, golden-brown from the marinade, were mostly white meat.
Chinese influence is also found in the pad khing ($11.95), a lightly sauced stir-fry dish made up of matchstick slices of ginger tossed in a wok with onions, mushroom, celery, bell peppers and carrots. I got mine with tofu. The big cubes of bean curd concentrated the salt and sweetness of the sauce and made a suitable backstop for the ginger’s bracing, spicy presence.
Thai Spice also offers several dishes featuring fried tilapia or salmon. There are daily specials written on a board by the door. When I went, it was offering the yaki udon ($11.95), a Japanese noodle stir-fry, and chow mein ($10.95), the familiar stir-fried egg noodle dish with vegetables.
In Albuquerque, we have plenty of places to allay cravings for Thai food. Thai Spice is a reliable option.