[Sidebar] April 6 -13, 2000
[Food Reviews]
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Thai Star

More of the same, but better

by Bill Rodriguez

1088 Chalkstone Boulevard, Providence, 421-5840
Open Mon-Thurs, 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.,
Fri-Sat, 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m., Sun, 12-10:30 p.m.
Major credit cards
Sidewalk access

If there's anything more pleasant than coming back to an old favorite restaurant that you've neglected for a long while, it's returning to find that it's improved. The very idea of Thai Star, up on Chalkstone, has always brought a smile to my lips and anticipatory smacking. Simple, tasty, classic preparations, ridiculously cheap. It was what I imagined I'd stumble across in some dusty Bangkok side-street bistro.

Well, Thai Star changed hands about a year ago, and the new ones are dexterous indeed. The menu is far more varied and prices are not so much more expensive as not as cheap (dishes top out at $12.95 for a couple of duck preparations, and are more typically $7 or $8.) The restaurant is located near Providence College and Rhode Island College, so it was always popular with students, and the prices shouldn't scare them away. It's still BYO, with a package store a short walk away, but you might want instead to try a glass of White Rose ($2), a pineapple and coconut cream blend that makes no apologies to pina coladas.

The ambience of the old Thai Star was not a selling point -- Thai Airlines travel posters being about it. Nowadays, there is still a Buddhist altar above the cash register, right livelihood still being on the eight-fold noble path. But now there's a delicate silk patterned wall covering, adorned with tastefully decorative panels of sequined elephants, the revered national symbol. Cloth napkins match the rose-colored tablecloths.

The attentive eye behind the redesign is proprietor and chef Alounkone Mey. She worked with other family members as a waitress at the old Siam Square restaurant, before it moved from Thayer Street to East Providence. The family now works here, so the friendliness that was a hallmark of the old ownership hasn't ebbed.

I re-encountered the place recently when I was in the neighborhood with a friend at lunch time, both of us in the throes of a pad Thai jones. Well, the mid-day menu has so many distractions that I soon forgot about that simple dish. I started with coconut soup ($2.95), a rich and velvety concoction with fresh mushrooms and a piece each of shrimp, squid and surimi. Gary's gaula soup ($2.50) was even better: what he assessed to be "a whole chicken breast-worth" of meat swimming amid the mung bean sprouts in an earthy broth redolent of galanga, an aromatic root.

We happily shared the "duck delicacy" ($5.95), the title ingredient accompanied by vegetables in a spicy brown sauce; and sriaracha noodles ($3.95), its chili sauce and veggies over yellow noodles that were appealingly al dente.

I returned with my wife one evening the next week. Sated with culinary conference fare, Johnnie nevertheless summoned the generosity to help me out with the abundant portions. She had already enjoyed the massaman curried tofu ($6.95) I'd gotten to go on the prior visit, pronouncing it up to snuff with the former Thai Star kitchen.

I started with tod mun pla ($4.25), a traditional fritter-like snack that's not clearly described on the menu. They are a bit spongy in texture, but the minced fish and shrimp were tasty beneath their sweet and sour sauce.

Figuring that the "chef's favorites" choices bode well, I chose two dishes from that category. The chicken lemon grass ($9.95) was nearly as generous with the fowl as was the soup the week before, and the lemon grass came through nicely in the medium-hot medley, which included baby corn and plenty of bamboo shoots. Spicy tamarind fish ($9.95) also was two-stars hot: crispy batter-fried cod served with simpler accompaniment, just red onions and green bell peppers cooked with basil leaves.

This time, I did end up choosing the pad Thai from among the eight noodle dishes ($6.95 with pork, chicken or beef; $7.25 with shrimp). It was the hot version, temperature-wise, with crushed peanuts but no sweet vinegared sauce. A good touch was an accompanying pile of fresh mung sprouts to complement the cooked ones with a coolness and texture contrast.

We had no room for dessert, although the "crispy banana" ($2.95), fried inside a spring roll wrapper, sounds yummy.

Pleasant place, the new Thai Star. Yes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. And remember to tip your waitress generously. There's no telling whether you're contributing to the security deposit on some future culinary delight.

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