Heat-Seeking Missive 

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Cajun Bangkok was a hit up north, making regular appearances on the Washingtonian magazine's annual list of best cheap eats. But then owner Lek Saengplai decided he wanted to trade Alexandria for Richmond. He closed shop and moved the name and much of the menu -- an unusual Thai/Creole fusion — here to Cary Street.

The space Saengplai chose was previously home to Thai Curry House, a decent if unremarkable restaurant whose closing hinted that Carytown can take only so much Thai food. Curry House failed to offer would-be diners a solid reason to pick it over its neighbors — Ginger, Thai Diner Too and a new Mom's Siam.

This is the market Cajun Bangkok has entered. Unlike its predecessor, however, it has a powerful hook. Who isn't curious about the fusion of disparate and spicy cultures?

I am a lover of heat, a Scoville junkie. I'm hooked on the pleasure of the long burn, the "pepper high," the endorphin rush that comes from tricking your body into thinking that parts of it — the sensitive linings of the throat and your sinuses — are actually on fire.

Not everyone likes this, but those of us who do know that Thai joints are the place to go. So on the first visit to Cajun Bangkok, I ordered what I was told was "the hottest that we've got." What I received was, in the vernacular of the block, a tame "American Hot." And though I tried for the spiciest dishes at each visit, I never got close to the Thai-hot end of the spectrum, so easily achieved nearby.

The goal of fusion is to make something better than the parts alone. Unfortunately, this blending of Thai and Creole seems to have dulled the edge of both. The result is a collection of standard Thai dishes that have been dialed down to an American palate, then given new names and a scattering of unusual but not always compatible swampland ingredients. The red curry beef panang worked. The beef was slow-braised and flavorful, and the red curry was earthy with just the barest edges of French sophistication, as good Creole is wont to do. The pad Thai was also delicious; so were the batter-fried crawdads scattered across its top. But the two didn't mix with success and were best when I separated them at the table.

The Thai-Jamaican jerk chicken promised flavorful heat but turned out to be a rendition of pad prik with chicken, but with no basil, peppers or onions. Definitely a few steps back from what the pure Thai dish would have offered.

On the flip side, the shrimp étouffée would have been better sticking to a traditional Creole approach. Instead, the shrimp suffered from Asian cooking techniques rather than the Southern flash-frying process, and the rémoulade was a tangle of hot notes without the contrasting snap of acid. A coconut she-crab soup demonstrated so-called fusion that is more about borrowing a title than a recipe.

Without a successful hook, this newcomer poses little threat to its stable neighbors. Its price point is relatively high, and its atmosphere is, to be kind, wanting. The décor is simple and could almost be elegant if the lighting weren't better suited for a surgical suite. It was tough to pass Ginger's dimly lighted style (the place was packed at 7 on a Thursday night) and enter Cajun Bangkok's cold white-tile dining room where we were the only patrons.

Given the space's visual minimalism, the music was critical for creating a sense of mood. At lunch we were treated to a hilarious mix of funk and disco reminiscent of a satirical porn soundtrack — bown-chica-bown-nown — that echoed the double-entendre of the restaurant's name. But at dinnertime, "Le Freak" was replaced by Delilah — the call-in radio show whose sappy conversation and commercials are an improvement over the actual music played.

Now, I've eaten in places with no atmosphere. For years I was a regular at a Thai place where the fluorescent bulbs flickered, the "art" on the wall was outdated, giveaway calendars, and the closest thing to music was the loud humming of the cook. But that was when I lived in a true metropolis; the place was across the street from my apartment, dirt cheap and 100 percent authentic. Richmond is not a metropolis. And it's not Alexandria. In order to find success among Carytown's worthy rivals, Cajun Bangkok needs to act fast to stress its strengths and shore up its weaknesses. Otherwise, it might have to find its own audience by bringing Thai food to one of the many Richmond neighborhoods that currently have none. S

Cajun Bangkok — Spicy Cuisine
NS ($$)
3129 W. Cary St.
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. daily. Closed Tuesday. Open till 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday.
Not wheelchair-accessible.

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