I thought I had died and gone to heaven. Or at least Thailand. Maybe they are one-in-the-same place. So I pinched myself to verify I was still in the here-and-now, and stole a furtive glance to assure myself I was seated among friends at Asia Kitchen Restaurant. Yet, there she was, an angel, in the person of Thai chef Sally Murray, telling me I could order practically anything from the restaurant's menu and she would make it gluten free. Now, if that doesn't qualify as celiac heaven, then I don't know what does!
Asia Kitchen is a flourishing business. Its success stems from a powerful combination of great food and a profound commitment to customer service. When long-time customer and friend Anne Barfield was diagnosed with celiac disease years ago, Chef Sally and her husband/restaurant host and manager, Pat Murray, were determined to continue to provide authentic Asian dishes for her. This determination led them to investigate the various ingredients and methods they use in their cooking. Today, Sally and Pat cater not only to a substantial group of non-celiac patrons; they also prepare fresh and tantalizing dishes for a growing celiac clientele. They have even updated their menu to make it easier for celiacs to identify suitable menu choices. Just look for the little smiley faces on the menu items to see which ones are GF.
Sally likes to joke that she never learned to cook when growing up in Thailand, but that she did know the hallmark of traditional Thai meals- large quantities of the freshest ingredients available. These days, Sally certainly knows how to cook, and even reads cookbooks for enjoyment in her never ending quest to elevate her already impeccable skill of combining taste, texture, color, and aroma to create her trademark dishes.
On the day that we lunched at Asia Kitchen, Sally suggested we begin our meal with a helping of soup, and then choose one curry dish and one noodle dish. I later learned that such a mix is typical of Thai meals. Anne selected her favorites, Tom Kai Gai soup and Gaeng Curry Gai, while I ordered the most popular Thai noodle meal, Phad Thai. Lynn agreed to our choices, and we feasted family-style.
The hardest part about dining at Asia Kitchen is deciding what to order because we celiacs have lots of choices here! While the appetizer choice is limited, do have a look at the soup and salad selections. Our soup, Tom Kai, is a hot and sour coconut milk soup, made from homemade stock, that is embellished with lime leaves, galanga root (pungent, aromatic roots from an Asian plant), lemon grass (a tropical grass with a fragrant oil), and mushrooms, and can be ordered with chicken or shrimp. Following Anne's lead, I learned the best way to enjoy this delicious soup is to first scoop rice into individual bowls, and then ladle the soup over the rice. Another soup, Poh-Taek, with an assortment of fish, squid, mussel, shrimp, and scallops would appeal to the seafood lover. Many of the salads are also full meals as all contain some combination of seafood, chicken, pork, and beef, along with crunchy fresh vegetables.
The entrée menu seems endless. In addition to fried rice, noodle, curry, and vegetarian meals, the Thai and Chinese dishes are subcategorized by whether they contain beef, chicken, pork, or seafood. Fried rice is generally off limits to celiacs because the soy sauce used by many restaurants contains gluten. However, Sally and Pat have obtained a huge bottle of San-J Tamari Wheat-Free Soy Sauce for use by all celiac customers. Just be sure to ask for it.
Many of the noodle entrées are naturally gluten free because they use dry rice noodles and are stir-fried without soy sauce. Sally recommends against substituting rice noodles in dishes that call for egg noodles because the quality and taste with the substitution does not measure up to her demanding standards. Glass noodles, used in Pad Woonsen, are made from mung beans, the source of bean sprouts, so should also be a safe choice. My order of Phad Thai consisted of stir-fried rice noodles with onions, bean sprouts, and ground peanuts, and my preference of beef, chicken, pork, or shrimp. Of further note, Asia Kitchen never adds MSG to any of their food, and always cleans their woks with water and paper towels between customer's orders.
Curry was not a taste I associated with Thai cuisine, yet it is a traditional method of Thai cooking. By definition, curry is any heavily spiced sauce made with curry powder (a blend of cumin, coriander, turmeric, and other spices). Thai cuisine marries this hot and salty sauce with the sweetness of coconut milk and produces the unique taste of dishes such as our lunch order, Gaeng Curry Gai, a mild yellow coconut curry with chicken, potatoes, carrots, and onions. A spicier curry, Gaeng Kiew Wan, is a green curry that welcomes the addition of bamboo and eggplant. Red curry, the fieriest, is available in two entrees, one of which I ordered as take-out for dinner that evening! Curry vegetables is an option on the vegetarian menu.
The Thai beef, chicken, pork, and seafood entrees are prepared in about six basic ways. This is helpful to know since it's easy to get tongue-tied and confused when trying to decipher Thai words. For example, the Thai-style sweet and sour- Priew Wan- can be ordered with beef (Nueh), chicken (Gai), pork (Moo), or shrimp (Goong). So first decide on the meat category and then decide how you want it prepared. By the way, Thai style sweet and sour does not mean breaded and fried. Instead, the delicate sweet and sour sauce of sugar, salt, and vinegar is added to the stir-fried meal of cucumbers, onions, carrots, bell peppers, and pineapple. Sally also recommends the Pad King Sod dishes for a gluten-free diet. Other dishes are infused with a traditional Thai chili garlic sauce.
Asia Kitchen experiences its largest crowd during the weekday lunch buffet. Sally recommends against celiacs dining at this time because she cannot guarantee her undivided attention to special orders. Instead, consider calling before the doors open at 11 am to place a special carryout order, or dine-in a little later in the day. Always state your need for a gluten-free meal.
This review was written by Melanie Psaltakis in May, 2003.
The Asia Kitchen menu states "We are familiar with the needs of a gluten-free diet. Menu items marked with a smiley face can be prepared for our celiac patrons. Please let your server know of this requirement." Pick up a printed copy at the restaurant's checkout counter or access the menu on their Web site, where the items that can be prepared gluten free are marked "GF" rather than by smiley faces. Asia Kitchen has been celiac friendly for almost ten years now, so all of their staff understand our requirements.
This update was written by Anne Barfield in September, 2010.