Once upon a time my friend Andrew from school days gone by theorized a product lifecycle. First, it’s disgusting (Who’d eat THAT??!!), trendy (wow, it says in the society pages, that people are eating this), mass produced (you can get it pretty easily in cities at least) and then a commodity (in your supermarket freezer section!). Obviously Thai food at this point is a commodity. Who doesn’t know Pad Thai, Green Curry, Tom Yum – it is a cliche at this point. As such, Thai is sort of depressing to consider in the santizied, Americanized version of it. Another restaurant, another set of drunken noodles and more basil. Like getting beef and broccoli, you can laud execution, but the inspiration is just about nil.
So when an authentic Thai place pops up, or at least alleged Thai pops up, I go in with a sinking heart. In the case of Thai Square in South Arlington, such pessimism is gobsmackingly unfounded. We went here for a late-ish dinner while waiting for Marc Maron’s standup show to begin – I’d read some good reviews, but it’s Thai – so who cares, right? However, from the very first bite of the papaya salad to the Floating Market Soup which I cannot discuss rationally, this is as good a Thai restaurant as I have ever been to – and with its relatively modest price point, perhaps the best value proposition. The combination of spice, complexity and real finesse with flavors makes this restaurant experience as good as you can get in Arlington.
The first impression upon arriving here is that – well, it’s divey, or at least storefronty. That said, while the outside lacks sex appeal, the inside is tastefully done – Yelp indicated that there was a renovation done on the space. The menu itself is fairly busy – a combination of your typical Thai standbys, but I wanted to aim a bit higher, so we looked at some of the more authentic pieces. The papaya salad, as we noted, came out first. This was shredded green papaya with a really hot, but subtle chili-lime juice combination. The acid and salad combination was compulsively noshable, and the heat sneaks up on you. It is a really great first course. For our entrees, we got the Green Shrimp Curry and the Floating Market Soup. I know, I mentioned at the outset of this piece that the Green Curry was a Thai cliche, and so it is. But here is one unusually good version – as the sauce was so smooth with subtle flavors, not just an avalanche of coconut milk. I could eat it all day. But the real star was the Floating Market Soup. This is a meatball and beef soup in an unctuous beef broth. The flavors are hard to discuss – just pure beefiness. It had the feel of a braised beef soup or a really good – hey words fail here. The heat is solid, but does not overpower the show at all, and the noodles are cooked nicely. But the real star was in its presentation, where they put a few pork rinds on top – which end up functioning like the bestest croutons on earth (vegans vomit now).
Pretty clearly we’ll be going back to this place again.. I’m not sure how many hankerings I’ll have for Thai vs Sichuan or Lao, but if this is Thai, sign me up. I could use more Floating Market Soup now, come to think of it.