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Friday, Feb 07, 2014

The versatile coconut: Thai Grill’s most valuable player

You’ll love the tom kha gai at the quaint Hillcrest eatery

By Mina Riazi
DSCN0844 Thai Grill’s pad Thai
- Photo by Mina Riazi

Before kale spawned a legion of crazed fans, it was merely a pushed-aside green. Over and over again, kale played the minor role of a garnish—its sole purpose was to beautify double bacon cheeseburgers and 48-ounce steaks. Then, kale became cool. It inspired the cookbook 50 Shades of Kale and went viral on Pinterest. Even more impressive: Oct. 2 is not only National Custodial Workers Day; it's also National Kale Day.

Together with coconut and quinoa, the green super-food is part of a trendy trio that rules nearly every aisle of every health-food store everywhere. OK, maybe that's a slight exaggeration, but I just don't understand this sudden fixation. Haven't some of us been relishing kale, quinoa and coconut for ages? 

In Thai cuisine, coconut milk flavors soups, curries and desserts. Coconut sugar and coconut vinegar are also important players, but not as influential as the fruit's fragrant milk. Tom kha gai is a classic Thai soup made with coconut milk. At Thai Grill in Hillcrest (420 Robinson Ave.), a cup of the hot soup costs $4.50, and you can upgrade to a bowl for another $4.

Located in a busy spot between Fourth and Fifth avenues, Thai Grill feels hidden and undiscovered. Most patrons arrive only to disappear minutes later with takeout orders in hand. On an early Sunday evening, the restaurant was practically empty. 

Thai Grill's carefully decorated interior is cozy, not cluttered, and feels like a cross between Grandma's living room and an antique shop. It left me wondering why people seem more inclined to grab their grub and go.

A Hillcrest fixture for almost 10 years, the quaint eatery offers a thick menu of choices. Tom kha gai, or chicken galangal soup, is an intensely flavorful dish. It owes its multilayered flavor profile to a host of iconic ingredients: lemongrass, kaffir limes, coconut milk and galangal. Similar to ginger in appearance, galangal is an underground stem, or rhizome, with a sharp, earthy essence. 

Thai Grill's tom kha gai is terrific. Loaded with chicken, straw mushrooms and tomatoes, the light soup boasts serious flavor. It must be chicken noodle soup's suave and snazzy older cousin. 

You can order most dishes on a 1-to-10 spicy scale, and if you still want to boost the heat, ask for the spice tray—chili oil, chili powder and a spicy fish sauce make up the fiery threesome. 

A few drops of chili oil drive just enough pep to the pad Thai noodles, which could use a little more tamarind juice. Still, the popular menu item makes up for it with rice noodles that stay chewy, tender and firm. I've wrestled with a tangled, overcooked wad of rice noodles too many times to count. 

As for entrées, you can't go wrong with Thai Grill's green curry. Cubed eggplant, bamboo strips, bell peppers and Thai basil leaves lend a wide range of textures to the curry dish—from silky to meaty to crisp. The green curry sauce, meanwhile, flaunts bold and bright flavor. 

Later, while reading over the green curry's ingredients, I came across Thai cuisine's most valuable player: the endlessly well-rounded coconut. Makes sense.

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