"You know what I'm going to do?" the elderly gentleman at the next table says to his wife. "It might kill me, but I'm going to get the egg drop soup!"
I can't imagine what ailments render egg drop soup a dietary danger, but I'm glad my friend went for it. Carpe diem. At the reliably crowded Little Bangkok , it's not only easy to eavesdrop on your neighbors, you almost feel you're part of their party.
This year the cramped little Cheshire Bridge Road restaurant turns 20, which I guess officially makes it a fixture. Readers of this blog and newspaper certainly bring up its name every time the discussion turns to Thai restaurants. In a city filled with glitzy but often soulless venues for the Southeast Asian cuisine, this homey spot stands out. It's the kind of place where regulars know to double park their cars in the tiny lot, and they don't mind waiting by the entrance for a table. Service doesn't miss a beat, and the familiar Thai/Chinese dishes taste a bit more homemade than they do elsewhere.
The restaurant makes fish-sauce-pungent versions of nam sod and larb -- the two ground-meat salads served with raw cabbage cups. The former (left) features ground pork with roasted peanuts and needles of fresh ginger in a chile-spiked marinade that leaves a sizzle. The latter unites ground chicken with mint leaves a notable presence of pulverized roasted rice, imparting a toastiness that plays gorgeously against the dressing of fish sauce and lime juice.
The restaurant makes a fine version of tom yum soup, with plenty of mushrooms, chicken slivers and shrimp bobbing in the broth. I like a little more heat and sourness and a touch less sweetness, but the tiny bits of lemongrass and kaffir lime leaf your spoon occasionally scoops up will make your tongue tingle with recognition. You could get a bowl but go for the tureen for the table. There's more show, more festivity, in the beat-up old aluminum hot pots with Sterno flames darting through the center.
Then it's time for curry. After suffering through so many overly sweet, overly creamy, artificially dyed versions in other restaurants I had forgotten that I once loved Thai curries. Here, you get the feeling that someone tastes the curries to make sure they have an appealing balance of hot, sour, salty, rich and sweet flavors. Both a green curry with chicken and a "rainbow curry" of duck with a spicy red base and a panoply of colorful veggies (one of the more expensive prestige items at $12.95) hit the right notes of their respective styles.
I didn't care for the pad thai, which came in a halo of red oil. It was sweet and bland, like it often is, without the notes of dried salted radish and dried shrimp that give more Thai-style versions some swag.
But I do see why so many Atlantans have a soft spot for this restaurant. Here's to 20 more years. Here's to egg drop soup.