There are false leads, of course, hours wasted in pursuit of purportedly great pho that turned out to be a bowl of dishwater — or, more likely, the ghost of a restaurant, a storefront barren but for a couple of dead flies and a faded red sticker proclaiming, "People Love Us on Yelp!"
In truth, there are a dozen misses for every hit. But because that one success can be a pleasure as pure and as unexpected as Addie's Thai House, the serious eater keeps searching.
Addie's is doubly hidden. The strip mall it calls home is set back from the intersection of Olive Boulevard and Woods Mill Road. Approaching from the east, as I did, you can easily miss it. The restaurant itself is a featureless façade set among a sports bar, a beauty salon and a shuttered Korean karaoke parlor. Inside, however, awaits a cocoon of comfort — elegance, even. The table settings are precise, the design of the plates and bowls attractive, the utensils surprisingly heavy in your hand. The décor is conventional — yes, there are photographs of Thailand's royal family — but not at all garish.
Red curry, green curry, pad thai: The menus of St. Louis' Thai restaurants generally hew to the same template. There is very little of the specialization or regional variation that you will find in, say, Los Angeles. In my younger and more vulnerable years — like, 2009 — this annoyed me to no end. Lately, though, I've come to accept that there's no point in grousing. Better to search out and celebrate what is different and exciting.
So: Consider beginning your meal with "Addie's Fresh Rolls." These are something like spring rolls, though more flavorful and far larger. (There are two to an order, though one might be enough for two diners to share.) Tofu, bean sprouts, cucumber, green onion and pieces of fried egg are wrapped inside rice paper, steamed and then topped with tamarind sauce.
Actually, a better comparison than a spring roll might be a traditional futo maki hand roll from a sushi restaurant. You have the contrasting textures of the soft tofu and egg and the crisp vegetables, while the thick sauce gives the dish a light sweetness, which is tempered by tamarind's natural, citrus-like sour notes.
To say gang kua ped yang is a red curry with duck is a gross understatement. It's the best Thai curry I've eaten in St. Louis, probably the best Thai dish I've had here and maybe the best duck dish, period. The menu translates the dish as "roasted duck curry" but then describes it as "sautéed" boneless duck breast. If I had to guess, I'd wager that the duck was sautéed and then finished in the oven. The crisp, mahogany skin certainly suggested time spent in a scorching sauté pan. Remarkably, even though the duck was chopped into half a dozen pieces and served (along with tomato, red bell pepper and pineapple) with at least part of each piece submerged in the curry, the skin retained its crispness.
The duck was perfectly cooked, with just enough fat rendered that the meat gained flavor without losing its luscious nature. Like all good curries, this red curry was too complex to pinpoint any one ingredient; its initial brightness yielded to a good balance of savory and sweet and a lingering chile-generated warmth. Even at four stars on a four-star spiciness scale, the heat didn't obscure the subtle seasoning, and it provided a necessary counterweight to the sweetness of the coconut milk and pineapple.
Gang kua ped yang is one of a few of the "House Specialty" dishes at Addie's Thai House. Another is soft-shell crab with broccoli, carrot and onion in a garlic-pepper sauce. The crab is lightly battered and then stir-fried. The exterior has a nice crunch and adds some bulk to the thin meat. The crab itself is sweet and a touch briny. The sauce has an aggressive flavor, more black pepper than garlic, and is quite salty. Though not at all spicy in the conventional sense, it's an intensely flavored dish.
If your tastes run more toward the conventional, I can recommend both the red and green curry. (Sorry, pad thai aficionados: I'm not one of you and didn't try it here.) Though you probably won't want to go back to regular red curry after trying the gang kua ped yang. The green curry is outstanding, its flavor more verdant than the red, its chile heat a touch more assertive. It comes with your choice of protein (chicken, beef, pork or shrimp), as well as bamboo shoots, eggplant, green pepper and Thai basil. The eggplant is substantial enough in body and flavor that you might not even need that protein. I ordered mine with shrimp, which were medium-size but plump, and, like the duck, cooked perfectly, barely opaque and buttery sweet.
There is much, much more on the menu that I want to try. Yet even these few dishes made the search worthwhile. And you — you don't have to search at all. The address is right in front of you.