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Spicy star returns to its former pad (Thai)

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This, my visitor from Thailand pronounced with delight and astonishment, is the best, most authentic tasting curry he's had in Winnipeg, the only one (he says) that could compare to the curries he dines on regularly in Chiang Mai. It was a red curry with chicken, a beautiful balance of sweet, spicy and salty, so flavourful it led my own, less Thai-educated palate to the same conclusion: the best I've ever had.

There's more than one red curry on the menu, so make a note of this one -- Gang-Pet, No. 34, fleshed out with green beans, red peppers and broccoli in a coconut creamy sauce.

I didn't try No. 33, but it sounds much the same, apart from the addition of straw mushrooms, and might possibly be just as good. On the other hand, a green curry with chicken, sampled on another visit, was OK, but not anywhere near in the same class as that glorious red curry, making it impossible to predict what curry seekers might find on any given day. Chances are most of the curries will never be less than acceptable.

The setting for that awesome red curry is a little odd. It's the tiny room where Lao Thai started out seven years ago, before moving to more spacious quarters in St. Vital four years later, and it's the same tiny room to which it has recently returned, bringing the restaurant-shy North End some interesting and delicious choices. It's not as bare-bones plain as it used to be, with some attractive Asian artifacts adorning the walls these days, but still as tiny as ever.

Nor is there any more seating than before, and what there is poses some problems since most of it now is at three big six-seater booths -- great, if there are six of you, although if the place isn't busy even just two of you can have a booth to yourselves. I'm assuming they will be shared when the house is full. On the other hand, much of the restaurant's business is for takeout, with delivery available.

Prices have risen only slightly over the years, with most dishes now from $6 to $10 for generous portions. Some of the other top choices are among the appetizers -- three of them so addictively delicious you may never get past them to the entrees. Skewers of chicken, for instance, with a hint of lemongrass under a nippy glaze, served with a sweet chili sauce. Or the seen-hang strips of jerk-style pork, seasoned with garlic and soy sauce, then dried and deep-fried to a dauntingly chewy but utterly greaseless state. Or the shrimp Thai fry, which is surely one of city's best shrimp bargains -- 10 deep-fried beauties, served with a spicy dipping sauce, paired with rice and sliced cucumbers, and as big as an entree for a mere $9.

You can make yourself crazy trying to choose among the nine soups. They run the gamut from the comfortingly mild kao peak sen of chicken with rice noodles in cilantro-flecked chicken broth, through the rather ordinary chicken wonton, to the spicier, galangal- and lime-juice-flavoured thome yam. Kao soy is a rare one, a pleasant, tomato-based soup with ground pork and thick, flat rice noodles, but my personal favourite is the restaurant's signature Laotian souk gai, another rarity I don't remember seeing on other menus -- a pity, since this gingery, chili-fired broth packed with slices of tender chicken is a sense-tingling delight.

I usually feel compelled when in a Lao Thai restaurant to try the pad Thai -- mainly out of duty, because it's one of the most popular Thai dishes, but rarely because of inclination, since what I so often get is a gummy, sloppy, overly sweet mess. Not Lao Thai's pad Thai though, which was a truly superior version -- a jumble of soft, skinny (as opposed to flat) rice noodles with crisp bean sprouts, tangy hints of tamarind, a minimum of sweetness, and just enough crushed peanuts for the perfect amount of crunch.

Don't overlook one delicious dish just because it sounds so ordinary. In fact, No. 23 -- chicken and fried rice -- doesn't sound or even taste like Lao or Thai at all. In fact, although it's called Laos style, the fried boneless pieces of chicken could almost pass for Canadian -- terrifically crunchy on the outside, juicy and subtly seasoned within, paired with vegetable-studded fried rice that would put most Chinese restaurant fried rice to shame.

Not every dish was successful; lab, for instance, a kind of salad based on shredded or chopped beef, chicken or tofu. Ours was made with shredded beef, and although it did have some heat, it didn't have much flavour, and no trace whatever of the essential ground toasted sticky rice -- boring but passable. But passable wasn't something I could say for the lao tum som, a green papaya salad that was seemingly dressed with nothing but an unpleasantly harsh-tasting shrimp paste.

Lao Thai is a family affair, with mom in the kitchen and son out front, both charming, friendly and accommodating.

-- -- --

For the many readers who have been asking about it, Deseo Bistro has finally re-opened at 696 Osborne St.

marion.warhaft@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 23, 2011 D3

History

Updated on Tuesday, December 6, 2011 at 3:20 PM CST: Corrects address to 763 Selkirk Ave.

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