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MY THAI

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There is a fabled cheap hash house in San Francisco's Chinatown where patrons sidle through the narrow kitchen past chain-smoking cooks in grimy undershirts to get to the dining area. Entry to this café is a visual and olfactory ordeal, as if the pleasantness of eating had been turned inside out to reveal the soggy underbelly. A giggle for visitors, but I've always thought that restaurants were wise to conceal the often messy practice of cooking behind a door through which fully completed meals could burst, as if materialized out of only the patron's desire.

Consequently, I was surprised, when I ascended the stairs to My Thai, to find a tiled kitchen displayed prominently, front and center, behind a glass wall. But I liked both the kitchen's clean and efficient look (equipped with white-hatted chefs), and the immediate aroma of Thai cooking -- tingly chili peppers mingling with sweet coconut curries backed by a chorus of browned garlic and ginger.

We were seated at tables dressed in black and gold. Steelers still? Actually the remainder of the restaurant's dramatic two-tone interior confirmed a simple coincidence: blond wood wainscoting with black trim and shimmering gold fabric swags strung across the ceiling contrasted with dark floor tiles. Thai artistic accents were scattered throughout, but nothing too garish: The place, bustling that night on Shadyside word-of-mouth, is the very essence of a tastefully decorated Walnut Street retail interior, complete with subdued lighting.

The Saturday night busyness meant hurry in taking our order, and a lost request for a glass of water. Our waitress volunteered to explain the menu. What I needed was time: There are more than 61 entrees served here.

The waitress tried to steer me away from "spicy." The Tom Kah Gai soup ($3.50) arrived "medium"; it wasn't nearly hot enough. The soup consisted of chicken slices in creamy coconut milk with cilantro and mushrooms. It hit the four critical "S's" of Thai cuisine: sweet, sour, salty and spicy, each sensation distinct, yet united. Add another couple of "S's" for the silky, smooth sinfulness of the coconut milk.

The Yum Neuh ($6.50) beef salad is a light meal in itself -- pieces of thin grilled beef, coated in lime juice and fresh chili peppers, mixed with scallions, tomatoes, red onion, cucumbers and cilantro, atop a bed of iceberg lettuce. Very refreshing, and the spicy beef was offset well by the tang of the dressing and the clean crunch of the cukes. The Angel Wings ($4.95) were another variation on fried munchy: chicken wings stuffed with black mushrooms and bean thread, then dropped in oil. The sweet-and-sour dipping sauce was the treat: fruity, tangy, and not overly sticky-sweet.

For entrees, we chose a house specialty, Gang Ped Yang ($10.95), and a Thai staple, spicy pork with basil ($8.95). The pork, tossed with peppers, had one too many wrist shakes of soy sauce in the mix, but this was still a nice thick sauce, and superior to the greasy base that sometimes accompanies this dish. We fought over who should finish the Gang Ped Yang, red curry with boneless roasted duck, pineapple, red and green peppers, tomato and basil -- served amid a soft, creamy and pastel sauce, rich and also sweet. Interestingly, despite the strong presence of basil, coconut milk and hot chilies that usually dominates Thai curried dishes, here the deep, smoky flavor of the roasted duck (some pieces still with crispy skin) held its own.

Only two dessert choices were available that night, but the oddly named coconut custard was a winner. Not like traditional custard, but with a spongy moist consistency between rice pudding and bread pudding, this warm concoction appeared solid on the spoon, but then melted away mouthful by sweet mouthful.

The bill was cleared quickly -- diners were backed up in the entryway. I exited past the kitchen-behind-glass again. The aroma of cooking remained as welcoming as it had been upon entry; I couldn't resist lingering and peering through the kitchen window. A chef tossed vegetables and chicken into a sizzling wok -- the garlic and ginger released their sharp scents. I selfishly wished I could start eating all over again, that I was moving through this food-prep passage toward a meal. Reluctantly, I descended, leaving the tantalizing sights and sounds behind.

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