Like many menus in Asian restaurants, Thai Garden's can be daunting. You often have to make two decisions - first, choose a sauce and then choose the main ingredient (usually beef, pork, chicken, or seafood, or vegetables).
While we studied the menu we munched on some of the starters. The so-called "King's Appetizer" ($7.95) is designed as a sampler and offers a taste of most of the regular appetizers ($3 - $6.95) fresh and fried spring rolls, beef jerky, chicken satay, spare ribs. We also ordered a special appetizer stuffed and fried wontons. All these starters are rather delicate in flavor, except the jerky (called "Heavenly beef") which is as chewy as leather and has an addictive and distinctive taste.
Soup is a part or all of most Thai meals but usually is not a separate course. Thai Garden serves a couple of soups in single appetizer portions, but many are made to-order for two or more and can be a complete meal in themselves. Almost all are composed of thin broths and loaded with vegetables, noodles and your choice of main ingredient ($5.95-$14.95).
Food boundaries are, of course, not as clearly defined as political ones, and many of the foods we associate with Asia are indeed often known beyond official boundaries. Geography and climate play a big hand, as do commerce and patterns of immigration. That there is a section of Chinese dishes on the menu is not surprising, and many of these are the popular spicy dishes from the Szechuan region ($7.25 - $10.95). Many of the other dishes are similar to ones you may have encountered in other kinds of Asian restaurants.
Thai curries, very different from such dishes from India, are among the most distinctive elements of Thai food. Known by their colors red, yellow or green these curries are usually thickened with coconut milk, which gives them a rich flavor. The green curry gets its color from cilantro and basil as well as from green chilies; the red from red chilies. From the five curry sauces ($7.95 - $12.95) Thai Garden offers, you then choose the main ingredient. You can also choose to have these as soups.
We tried to choose an interesting combination of contrasting dishes for our party of four to sample. A platter of Thai fried noodles with chicken, shrimp and pork ($10.95) was the mildest, but it had a variety of textures. Island shrimp had a interesting piquancy along with sweetness from pineapple chunks. The addition of coconut milk set it apart from what we would think of as a Polynesian-style dish. A green curry with seafood kicked it up a notch, in the language of a Food Channel guru. I particularly like the complexity of flavors in this curry, which is spicy hot but the taste buds are stimulated rather than paralyzed. Our other choice was ginger beef, a stir-fry with an array of colorful vegetables, offering texture and assertive taste. Of course, fragrant jasmine rice is a delicious foil to "stretch" the flavors.
Often in restaurants, the kitchen cuts corners by using only a couple of sauces for a multitude of dishes. Each dish was distinct in flavor and texture.
Asian-style desserts are mostly an acquired taste, I guess. I'm usually happy to bring the meal to a close by opening my fortune cookie and reading my aphorism for the day. S
Style Weekly's mission is to provide smart, witty and tenacious coverage of Richmond. Our editorial team strives to reveal Richmond's true identity through unflinching journalism, incisive writing, thoughtful criticism, arresting photography and sophisticated presentation.
We make sense of the news; pursue those in power; explore the city's arts and culture; open windows on provocative ideas; and help readers know Richmond through its people. We give readers the information to make intelligent decisions.