When it comes to restaurants, we have been known to apply the "cookie-cutter" epithet to some chains. But we see no reason to penalize a locally owned venue for hewing to a tried-and-true recipe, as long as the result is satisfying and delicious.
Which brings us to Thai Spoon, located in a former pizza shop on Dormont's charming Potomac Avenue. The storefront and decor are typical of small, starting-out ethnic restaurants: a few cultural markers applied to a narrow, generic space, filled with perhaps a few too many tables for comfort.
Similarly, there was little to distinguish this menu from those of countless other Thai spots. On offer were: noodle dishes; a selection of curries in red, yellow and green; and house specialties, several appearing to adapt traditional Thai cuisine to readily available and ever-popular American ingredients, such as New York strip steak and salmon. Still, we were able to round out our Thai experience by ordering several old favorites — and a couple new-to-us dishes.
Our first taste from Thai Spoon's kitchen was a fresh spring roll in a tender, translucent wrapper, which allowed us to see through to the layers of pink shrimp, salad greens and vermicelli noodles inside. Its flavor was refreshing, as befits a summer roll, but the hints of mint and basil we encountered were not enough to fully flavor each bite with their peppery, aromatic notes; instead, bland lettuce predominated. Thai toast, a variation on more-common shrimp toast, included minced chicken along with shrimp, spread atop bread and deep fried for an extra-crunchy coating. This was a simple, satisfying snack, with the appeal of fried bread enriched with the salty-sweet umami of chicken and shrimp.
Larb salad is a dish we love for its ingenious combination of spicy meat and cooling greens. Thai Spoon's chicken larb had plenty of fire, but its big bed of juicy, crispy iceberg lettuce was sufficient counterpoint, and the minced (not ground) chicken was pleasingly meaty in texture.
As you'd expect from any Thai restaurant worth its salt, there's plenty of seafood on the menu. Faced with all manner of hotpots and house specialties, we settled on Gulf of Siam, a panoply of seafood in a straightforward ginger-garlic-chili sauce. The star of the presentation was a pair of gorgeous, green-edged New Zealand mussels, but the mid-sized scallops were overdone and big pieces of faux crab were, well, faux crab. Though passable, it lacked the lively interplay among salty, sweet, sour and bitter tastes — the combination of which makes Thai one of Asia's most alluring cuisines.
There was certainly no lack of liveliness in "the volcano," a super-spicy dish of pork ribs simmered in chili-herb paste. Essentially a platterful of powerful curry paste clinging to ribs, with no coconut milk to water things down, this was an adaptation of an authentic southern Thailand dish in which the ribs are sliced cross-wise into pieces. We appreciated not having to fish out innumerable bones, but wondered if failing to expose the marrow to the sauce cost some flavor. Probably not much: Thanks to garlic, ginger and the other non-chili components, it was loaded with flavor and spectacularly spicy. Fans of extreme heat might want to make a pilgrimage to Thai Spoon for this one.
At the other extreme was a green curry in a medium of coconut milk so rich, not to say excessive, that its other flavors — the brightness of keffir lime, the piquancy of green chilis, the pungency of fish sauce — were reduced to mere suggestions. This dish also seemed to highlight some inconsistency in Thai Spoon's delivery of spice. Despite being ordered at a 4 on the standard 1-10 scale, this curry was very mild; the larb, which we'd ordered at a 3, was considerably spicier. (The ribs, also ordered at a 3, were flagged on the menu as "extremely" spicy to start with.)
The ingredient list of the "house noodles" (snow peas, egg, napa cabbage) would fit in pretty much any stir-fry, but the kitchen handled them ably and the dish was tasty without relying on heat at all. Factors such as the extraordinarily broad rice noodles, some 2 inches wide, and the subtle brightness of otherwise soy-flavored sauce helped this dish add up to more than the sum of its parts.
The same cannot quite be said for Thai Spoon. Like the level of spice, the level of excellence of our dishes varied from hot to middling. Even so, a Thai restaurant is a welcome addition to Dormont and its environs, and Thai Spoon may capture — and even create — a new clientele for its country's unique cuisine.