A running joke among aficionados of Thai cuisine is that no matter how hard you beg, plead, wheedle, boast or threaten, the kitchen won't serve your red curry or tom yum soup as hot as the Thai themselves prefer. For the most part, you're stuck with the mild/medium/hot scale, and while "hot" can be quite fiery those flecks of red chile dotting your dish aren't there for decoration, after all and the sweat beading on your brow is certainly real, you can't shake the feeling that your food not only could be, but should be, hotter.
But every once in a while, usually by accident, you eat something that must be fairly close to the level of heat the Thai enjoy, if only because you can't imagine eating anything hotter and living to tell. At least that's what I told myself after a green curry at Simply Thai in Florissant had my brow damp an hour later. Even though I already had plans to visit a cupcake bar for dessert, I seriously considered stopping at one or maybe both of the frozen-custard stands I passed between Simply Thai and I-270 to cool, if not extinguish, my still-burning mouth.
(For the record, I requested the curry "pretty spicy." When the server brought it out, he said did I imagine a smirk? "It's pretty spicy. Take it easy.")
The green curry looked standard-issue on the plate: bamboo shoots, green peas, red and green bell peppers, basil leaves, slices of pork and (many) flecks of red chile swimming in a sauce of green curry paste and coconut milk. What made this curry so remarkable wasn't simply its intense heat, but how that heat simultaneously contrasted with and also intensified the curry's other elements: the sweetness of the coconut milk, the savoriness of the pork, even the familiar citric bite of the bell peppers. The sensation is difficult to describe. The closest approximation I can find is how, on a very hot, still afternoon, a sudden breeze can feel like a moment's relief but also like an entire day's worth of heat is washing over you.
Later, when I was back at my desk and the curry's heat had passed, I felt well, not sad, exactly, but bittersweet. Say the spicing wasn't an accident. It's still a rare occurrence. Can I ever really appreciate Thai cuisine if, no matter how hard I beg, plead, wheedle, boast or threaten, my food is tempered for the Western palate?
In a sense, it was this question that brought me to Simply Thai, a small, no-frills restaurant one small room, paper napkins, no liquor license sandwiched between a Domino's Pizza and a KFC advertising a "Seniors Buffet" (for, not of, seniors, I assume) in Florissant.
Specifically, though, I went to Simply Thai in search of massaman curry. In his exhaustive cookbook-slash-history Thai Food, David Thompson describes massaman (or mussaman or, on the Simply Thai menu, mus sa mun) curry as "the most complex, time-consuming Thai curry to make; it is also the most delicious."
To give you an idea of the curry's complexity, here are the ingredients in Thompson's own massaman recipe: chicken, potatoes, shallots, coconut milk, Thai cardamom pods, peanuts, bay leaves, coconut cream, palm sugar, fish sauce, tamarind water and pineapple juice. And that's not including the essential ingredient, the curry paste, which requires red chiles, shallots, garlic, galangal, lemongrass, coriander root, salt, peanuts, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, cloves, nutmeg, mace, cassia bark and Thai cardamom pods.
I looked up Thompson's recipe before I visited Simply Thai before the restaurant was on my radar, even. You see, at lunch one day at another area Thai restaurant, I'd eaten a massaman curry that was basically chicken in peanut-butter sauce. Now, I knew peanuts were an integral part of massaman curry, but I didn't think they were that integral.
Here the massaman curry has a deceptively simple appearance, a golden-brown shade again suggesting peanut butter. And there are, in fact, whole cashews in the curry as well as potatoes, onions and, in my case, pork but the flavor is a subtle blend of mild spice, sweet coconut, rich cashew and savory meat, with a kiss of heat from the curry's base of red curry paste. (Though the menu marks it with a lit bomb, the default is fairly tame.) Like most very good curries, you could spend a long time teasing out the different flavors if you could refrain from giving in to its deliciousness and devouring it.
What better proof of the complexity of Thai cuisine than the fact I've written 800 words about only two dishes and am still circling the issue? You could save yourself the effort by doing what friends and I did on a visit to Simply Thai, ordering three different soups: gang jued tofu with ground pork, tom kha with tofu and tom yum with chicken.
Gang jued tofu is the soup you might not know, a clear broth seasoned with scallion and cilantro and then bulked up with chunks of tofu and either ground pork or chicken. This is simple in the best sense, brightly flavored but with a meaty undertone. In comparison, tom kha and tom yum are a riot of flavors: cilantro, scallion, lime leaves, lemongrass, red chile and that irresistibly alien (to Western tastes, at least) rhizome galangal, a large bite of which is like nothing else you've ever eaten. To simplify, tom kha has coconut milk, tom yum does not. Simply Thai does both exceptionally well. The tom kha possesses a mellow sweetness that doesn't obscure its heat, while the tom yum explodes with chiles, the tartness of lime and sharp galangal. You can order both soups with either tofu or chicken, but the meat is more or less incidental.
I followed my tom yum with pla sarn rode, from the "Simply Thai Specials" section of the menu. This was a deep-fried catfish fillet topped with tomatoes and what the menu describes as a "special spicy sweet-and-sour sauce." I'd never had this dish before, and what struck me other than the perfectly fried catfish, the batter thick and crisp but not oily was how I craved more heat. Not to punish myself, but to balance the thick, more-sweet-than-sour sauce.
With exactly 100 choices, not counting desserts, you're certain to find something you've never had. You might try larb (or lahb), a salad of ground pork, red onion, scallion, cilantro and rice crushed into very small pieces in a very tart lime dressing. The odd, gritty texture of the rice too much for you? Even the simple, familiar and not terribly authentic "Thai butterfly" (crab rangoon) is above average.
Though I came to Simply Thai searching for the subtle heart of massaman curry, am I too proud to admit how much I enjoyed a simple appetizer of deep-fried sweet potatoes? I yam not.