The Thai restaurant Pearl Café doesn't hide so much as hunker down — one more squat, featureless building on a long stretch of Lindbergh Boulevard lousy with strip malls and fast-food joints. The parking lot borders a QuikTrip and a mini-golf course; across the street is a Burger King. Take away the restaurant signage and the building could house swimming-pool supplies, cell phones or payday loans. In fact, before it was Pearl Café, it was a cheap Chinese place, Hunan Delight.
The owners of Pearl Café have pulled this trick before: A little over two miles to the northeast on Lindbergh, they turned an old Taco Bell into Simply Thai. It's as drab a restaurant as I've visited in St. Louis, but it serves some of the best Thai fare in town, including a green curry so scorching hot that two years later the memory still prickles my tongue and dampens my brow. (See "Spice Is Nice," October 25, 2007.)
In terms of interior decorating, I expected a repeat performance at Pearl Café. Here, though, more attention has been paid to looks. The fixtures are contemporary: solid, if not sleek. A flat-screen TV hangs above the single dining room. The modest décor evokes Thai culture but doesn't clutter the walls. The overall ambiance works equally well for either a quick lunch or a casual dinner date.
The menu is lengthy but not overwhelmingly so, a greatest hits of Thai cuisine: soups, curries, stir fries, noodles and a catchall category of house specialties. As is customary, you control the spiciness of your dish, from one-star heat to five. I opted for four stars: hot, yes, the dishes freckled with chile-pepper flakes, but not brain-melting. Unlike that green curry at Simply Thai — which was probably five-star hot, possibly six or more — I didn't still feel the effects at my desk an hour later.
Aficionados of Thai cuisine can choose their favorite dishes with confidence. Executive chef Scott Truong and his staff prepare each dish with care, paying close attention to the customary Thai balance of sweet, sour, hot and savory. You may blanch at five-, four- or even three-star heat, but chiles play a vital role (besides goosing your endorphins, that is), cutting the coconut-milk sweetness of a red curry and giving the plain, citruslike bite of the red and green bell peppers heaped on the plate — you select a protein for your curry (chicken, pork, beef, shrimp), but it might seem secondary to the bell pepper and bamboo shoots swimming in the sauce — a much-needed kick. A hint of lime and the sophisticated anise sweetness of Thai basil round out the dish.
Several of the house specialties are seafood-based, including the Thai chile squid. Those whose experiences with the cephalopod are restricted to fried calamari might do a double take at this dish. The squid is cut into thin square pieces, each about the size of a Post-it note and a lovely fresh-snow white. The meat is tender, though retaining enough chew to remind you that it is, in fact, squid. It's served with red and green bell peppers and basil leaves in a rich brown sauce heavily speckled (in my case) with chile flakes. To my palate, at least, the sauce didn't have an especially distinct flavor, but its savoriness, only tinged with sweetness, helped deepen the squid's mild taste. The chile was essential, a spark to sauce and squid alike.
One intriguing dish was the Thai-braised chicken. Intriguing because the chicken didn't appear to have been braised in any conventional sense, but lightly battered and fried — very much like the Chinese-American classic General Tso's chicken. It could have used a healthy dose of General Tso's chile peppers. I found the chicken bland, the dish as a whole too reliant on chunks of pineapple for flavor.
The menu does include a few Chinese and Vietnamese dishes. I didn't try any of these. However, should you find yourself at Pearl Café with a companion who is resistant to Thai food, I suggest easing him or her into the cuisine with the Thai dumplings. These are universally appealing, sort of a cross between pot stickers and an empanada: ground pork in a thin wonton shell fried to a light-blond crisp.
The soups are very good, none better than the tom yum, the classic chile-spiked broth with chicken (or shrimp), mushroom, lemongrass and galangal. Too often tom yum is overwhelmed by a lazy reliance on straight-up chile heat, but Pearl Café gets the balance exactly right, the sharp zing of lemongrass and gingery galangal and the mild funk of mushroom (really, the chicken is just ballast) giving way to a mouth-puckering lime sourness and then a blast of chile spice.
If you order one of the lunch specials, you are brought a cup of the day's soup. Sometimes this is the tom yum, sometimes it's a chicken-rice soup, simple but not simplistic, the clean, light broth spiked by a few slices of scallion and a sprinkling of fried garlic.
The service is laid-back but not inattentive, and very friendly. My first and return visits were further apart than is customary for my reviews, but one server not only remembered me but my general preference for spicier dishes. This same server once brought me a Thai iced tea instead of Thai iced coffee. When he realized his mistake, he encouraged me to drink both. I don't recommend this unless you need to stay awake for several consecutive days.
My only complaint about Pearl Café is really a complaint — dissatisfaction might be a better word — about Thai restaurants in St. Louis in general. There are very good Thai restaurants here, like Pearl Café and Simply Thai, and there are a few not-so-good Thai restaurants and many in between. Yet for the most part they vary in quality, not in kind, and they must be judged, again and again, across the same spectrum of dishes.
Yes, I realize this is a result of demographics and restaurant smarts. The demand for Thai cuisine in St. Louis differs in kind for the demand in, say, Los Angeles, and a restaurant would be foolish not to meet our demand for red curry, pad thai and so forth. Yet we have so many Thai restaurants in this area that I refuse to believe that in at least some of these kitchens there aren't "secret" recipes.
I'll keep looking for them, one squat suburban strip mall at a time.