Savor Thai Pikul’s soups and curries, but don’t bother leaving room for dessert
Let’s start with dessert. Not because life’s too short to do otherwise, but because it was the least of the lot at Thai Pikul, an appealing new place on Fredericksburg Road run by a Thai family from Chicago with no previous restaurant experience, but a steady following among friends and family. “My mom was famous for her cooking,” confided Jet Vongvinijsorn, the owner’s spiky-haired son, serving as the restaurant’s waiter, greeter, and promoter. Promotion aside, the “killer” coconut ice cream we were promised was a lay-down-dead snoozer; while refreshing, it didn’t taste convincingly coconut. The warm and lightly sweet Thai custard, with a texture approaching that of bread pudding, would have been good had it not been singed. The sticky rice underpinning both desserts stuck to itself with such tenacity that it could have served as shock-absorber stuffing.
|From front: Gaeng Kheow, a green curry served over chicken and vegetables; Tom Kha, a spicy coconut soup; and Pad Kaprao chicken with hot-pepper garlic sauce and fresh basil. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)|
Mom’s name, Pikul Sakkasem, is on the restaurant, and her heart, we suspect, is on the savory side of the kitchen the side that produces the delicate, steamed shrimp dumplings called Kanom Jeeb. Shaped like diminutive purses, the tiny, almost perfumed packets are topped with grains of fried garlic and served with a soy dipping sauce that tasted strongly of molasses. The yin-yang combination is, in this case, killer. The same could not be said of the sweet plum sauce accompanying the translucent summer rolls: Though it worked well enough with the refreshing lettuce, vermicelli, krab, and basil filling, a spunkier, less sweet dip would have been more appropriate. A standard-issue sweet-and-sour sauce accompanies the deep-fried egg rolls, and though the filling, with or without chicken, is hardly distinctive, everything is fresh, and the rolls are unusually light and crisp. Definitely not the cardboard-encased, mostly cabbage-filled rolls of many lunch-special menus.
Soups are among the gems of this multi-faceted cuisine, and Pikul’s Tom Kha soup with chicken arrived so superbly spiced that I wouldn’t change a pinch, slice, or morsel. I could have inhaled the spicy coconut milk base with sliced galangal root and lemon grass all day, the chicken was abundant, and there was just enough red pepper to make it all sing. On this basis, the classic Tom Yum soups, with either chicken or shrimp, should also be keepers. The soup that accompanies lunch specials is not special, that is but the glass-noodle soup, its clear broth accented with bits of cabbage, celery, and spinach, is a comfort-food classic and probably good for what ails you. My only complaint is that the noodle soup was served with sliced chicken, not the minced chicken and shrimp balls indicated on the menu, creating a dish that is more classy Campbell’s than intriguing Asian.
| Thai Pikul Restaurant
11am-10pm Fri & Sat
Price Range: $8-16
A little alchemy from the bowls of add-ins brought to the table by a thoughtful waiter (one of several charming and attentive servers, Thai, Filipino, and Vietnamese) for one evening’s entrées, also would have been welcome. “This one’s a flavor burst,” the waiter said of the vinegar suffused with jalapeño. Others were dried pepper flakes and a chili-laced fish sauce. We tried them all on the house-recommended Rhad Na noodle dish, which we ordered with a spice level of three (out of five); three doesn’t cut it in this observer’s estimation hence the add-ins. But no matter the heat index, this is still a peasant dish: Broad, short noodles are clumped together to form the base, piled high with bracingly bitter Chinese broccoli (mostly leaves and stems a tad too crisp) and slices of meat (we chose pork), and bathed in a light, soy-flavored gravy.
It’s all primally satisfying and the gravy isn’t as scary as one might fear, but I don’t have to order it again.
I wouldn’t hesitate to repeat the Rama Chicken, however, despite the fact that the actual dish served was very different than the dish listed on the menu: steamed chicken and broccoli florets “smothered with delicious sweet peanut sauce.” What the waiter delivered was a thin, lightly sweet curry, strongly peanut flavored and, at heat level four, perfectly seasoned. Abandon all inhibitions and give Rama a chance. And consider, too, the Panang curry with chicken, beef, or pork. It’s among the curries that mom makes from scratch, not a prepared paste, and it’s quite distinctive not the least for its inclusion of sliced kaffir lime leaves. Usually used whole, a form not meant to be eaten, the leaves lend an almost metallic edge to the coconut-milk-based red curry, served, again, at a perfect level-four heat. Decor and service taken into account, the restaurant itself approaches level four as well, and there are dishes you won’t find elsewhere.
A few more “flavor bursts” and it will achieve level five. •