Photo by Jeanne RiceI used to breathe fire with the best of them—used to compete for the highest taste-bud body count, scorch the skin right off my teeth and the mucous right off my membranes! As brash young hotshot gourmands, my friends and I would push one another toward ever more horrific feats of condiment consumption—a toast to the boy who downed a capful of Lysol for $20, if you please!
But now I've grown up. With maturity comes wisdom, and with wisdom comes a desire to vomit or experience severe oral bleeding infrequently, if at all. Now I know there's more to life than just the spice. I treat my mouth more gently, leaving that rough, spicy glory to the kamikazes who leave no curry unslathered. Anyone can immolate natural flavors under a swath of peppery napalm, but it takes real craft to put together a dish that can stand naked and proud before the world. And so I stop by Huntington Beach's Silk Thai Cuisine, where naked never tasted so good.
Not that Silk Thai couldn't scoop out some first-class curry—indeed, this immaculate little restaurant is known the length and breadth of the county for elevating the humble condiment to something more accurately termed an art form—but this time we were in search of something simpler, subtler and safer: call it white Thai. Fortunately, Silk Thai seemed sympathetic to our meek palates after a particularly mettle-testing week. One of those incongruously serene hideaways tucked in the crook of a typically unserene mini-mall, it's a place to grab a breath of fresh air before braving death by stucco or SUV outside. We tiptoed in late one evening (Silk Thai offers dining until 9 p.m., 10 p.m. on weekends) and slid into a booth where we had some of the chilliest and creamiest Thai iced tea east of the international dateline: this would be the softer side of Thai.
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Our appetizers materialized rapidly, a sampler selection of Silk Thai's finest. The beef satay was refreshingly tender and juicy, almost melting in our mouths without skewing toward underdone. Dunked in a rich peanut sauce—you didn't expect us to eschew condiments completely, did you?—it's almost like candy, except, um, that it's steaming-hot beef. The spring rolls (we ordered vegetarian; you're under no such obligation) were so crisp and airy that we had to look up the correct spelling of "diaphanous." And the shrimp tempura? Perhaps not intended by eons of evolution to take a brief swirl through the peanut sauce —legumes and crustaceans, together at last!—but it was nonetheless crunchy and, dare we say, succulent in all the appropriate places.
Our main courses were just as artful, with phalanxes of flavors jostling for attention. My surviving taste buds rejoiced at the honey chicken, a house specialty that transcends mere condiments. Each meticulously prepared chunklet demands a respectful pause: it's a simmering blend of the sweet, the sour and the spicy. The extra sauces are gratuitous—consume as presented and savor. The paht broccoli and robust tofu hunks bob stem-deep in a tart but still-modest sauce (it's almost too picturesque to disturb with a fork); with a generous dishful of sticky rice, it's a sleek and soothing way to combat an otherwise tasteless day—or a tasteless diet, for that matter.
So call variety the spice of life—we found our spice in the space between hot curry and cool tea, a place where we could let our food stretch out a little. It's nice to get reacquainted with flavors besides hot, blazing hot and oh-God-help-me-help-me, and it was nice to know they'd accept me back after all those years of haughty neglect. Maybe you're like I once was—maybe you think you've got something to prove by downing all those esophagus-abrading pepper blends. Go forth and learn your lessons—there are extreme dining experiences ready to meet you head-on. Me, I'll be sipping my tea and letting that honey chicken dissolve in my mouth. I think I've tortured myself enough.
Silk Thai Cuisine, located at 19690 Beach Blvd., Huntington Beach, is open Mon.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. (714) 964-1151. Beer and wine. Dinner for two, $30, food only. AmEx, MC and V accepted.