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Ban Thai

Ban Thai inhabits hallowed ground in the Des Moines food scene. Its predecessor in the old Taste of Thailand building was a beloved trailblazer, bringing Thai food to town in 1977, when Iowans knew little of any south and southeast Asian cuisines. Sisters “Beni” (Benichang) and “T” (Somchai) Luangaram, along with Beni’s husband “Pak” (Prasong) Nurack, turned this venue into the East Village’s first destination restaurant and a political community center, too. It’s hard to compete with nostalgia, not to mention the force of personality that the “Spice Sisters” and “Pak” brought to the place. So the new owners wisely remodeled. The trademark bright yellow paint has been replaced with earth tones while the interior now has handsome new wood floors and ceilings, lime walls and stone tile bathrooms.

Ban Thai owner Siriporn Loucks brings some nostalgia to the table herself. Her family opened another Ban Thai on East 14th Street two decades ago. That place morphed into Thai Flavors. In full circle style, she returns to the dining scene with her sister, Watana Klongsokon, as chef. (Thailand has the highest female-to-male ratio of upper echelon chefs.) Their menu will look familiar to Thai diners. It’s sensibly short, avoiding the trend of including Lao, Vietnamese and Chinese dishes. As with Mexican restaurants in town, menus at most Thai cafes read much alike. Unlike the Mexican places, recipes differ from one Thai place to the next. For instance, “Rama” dishes at Ban Thai were made with steamed vegetables instead of the crisp fried ones I love at King & I.

Watana takes creative diversity further. Three different beef dishes came with three different cuts of beef, showing rare attention to detail. As do other little things — the menu omits the Thai name of one dish that could sound offensive when pronounced, the sort of humor “Pak” indulged.

My best appetizer was a fish cake dish, “tod mun,” well complemented with peanut and vinaigrette topping. Pot stickers disappointed because they were deep fried to crunch rather than pan fried to various textures. My tom yum gai was divinely flavored with lemongrass and ginger. Green papaya salad incorporated every flavor in the Siamese arsenal.

A pad thai dish delivered a distinctive kick of pickled winter radishes — a nice acidity boost to stir fried rice sticks, chicken and veggies. A red curry (yes, they make their curry pastes from scratch) was rich in chilies and exotics like galangal, with the soothing sweetness of coconut milk and fresh Thai basil. “Tender string beans” was a marvelously complex dish with much more than beans, including exotic fungi. In Des Moines, Thai cafés differentiate with their choice of fish — catfish, salmon and tilapia star at other places. Ban Thai’s fish special is crispy red snapper with a chile and fish sauce accent.

Prices seem slightly higher than Taste of Thailand’s, but they’re still a good value in the East Village. Lunches, with rice, cost $6.95 to $8.95. Appetizers were in the $5 - $7 range, with a $13 sampler platter. Salads were $3 - $10, soups $3.50 - $9 and entrees $9 - $13. They have short beer, wine and soft drinks menus.


Side dishes
Lemon Grass, a Southeast Asian restaurant, opened in the site of the old Belwood Bakery (12871 University, Clive)… Iowa Arts Council launched a new Web site that distinguishes “uniquely Iowan” foods. (www.iowaartscouncil.org/programs/folk-and-traditional-arts/place_based_foods)… “1001 Malaysian Nights” will bring traditional dance, martial arts, fashion and dinner to Drake’s Olmstead Center March 31, $10... Clarifications: Wine Enthusiast gave Café di Scala its only 2006 “Award of Unique Distinction” for Iowa restaurants. The magazine also gave “Awards of Distinction” to Trostel’s Greenbriar, Fleming’s and Splash… Jesse’s Embers and Manhattan Deli have been serving Ingersoll patrons for more than a quarter century. I forgot them when listing examples of such places and their many fans let me know it. CV

By Jim Duncan CVFDude@aol.com
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