Bangkok Station will feel familiar to Thai fans

Bangkok Station

550 Pharr Road, Atlanta

1 of 4 stars (good)

On my second visit to Bangkok Station, I ordered the Lucky Fish.

This was a pointed decision. I had already ordered my way around the menu once before, without much luck. My eye caught on the whole fried red snapper, a dish that promises “carmelized Thai three flavors sauce,” sautéed spinach, bell pepper, shitakes and jasmine rice, and, at $32, happens to be one of the most expensive dishes on the menu.

Basically, I was ready to get lucky. The waitress confirmed my decision. “Oh, yes, the Lucky Fish, that’s very good.”

As she carried the dish to our table, I caught a glimpse and got excited. It was a big snapper, golden fried into a “U” shape that made the head and the tail point to the ceiling. As she set it down on the table, I could see the other details: the red bell pepper stuffed with spinach and mushrooms, the rice, the thin, mandolin-shaved garnishes of carrot and cabbage. It is an impressive, attractive plate, the kind of thing that makes the table sitting next to you lean over to their waitress and ask, “What are they having?”

If they had asked me after I finished eating it, I’d have said, “Oh, it’s just fine.”

The fish is filleted off the bone into chunks that are deep-fried and piled atop the fish itself, which is just a fried skeleton vessel. This is a neat trick for the diner who doesn’t like the trouble of eating a whole, bone-in fish, but those of us who prefer whole fish usually like the moisture and depth of fish cooked on the bone. The fried chunks were easy to gobble up and the serving was certainly ample, but it wasn’t the kind of impressively succulent meat that one hopes for with whole fish.

And the “Thai three flavors” sauce? It had that too-sweet orange quality that reminds me of jarred sweet and sour.

Bangkok Station is a place where you shouldn’t set your expectations so high. It is that familiar American neighborhood Thai restaurant that serves safe, sweet, not-too-spicy, not-too-funky dishes. Atlanta has a dozen or so places like this, so you might be familiar with the routine.

Overall, what stands out about Bangkok Station are the light fixtures. There are Edison bulbs and bell jars and all kinds of filaments set to pleasant, moody glows. I’ve never been in a Thai restaurant with such wonderful light fixtures.

Otherwise, I’ve had this menu too many times.

The menu here is organized around “stations.” There’s the grilled station, with those skewers of thin-sliced, marinated grilled meat and vegetables. The soup station has the familiar chicken coconut soup and a shrimp lemongrass soup. There’s the curry station, the noodle and rice station, the sautéed station, and so on. I suppose this is a play on the train-themed name, but it just reminds me of the familiar kitchen organization of labor: the salads made here, the noodles boiled here, and so on.

In any case, Bangkok Station will do the job if you’re looking for run-of-the-mill Thai dishes. The papaya salad is topped here with juicy shrimp, but is an otherwise familiar crunchy, light pile of slivered papaya and lime juice. The skewered satay beef is tender and slightly sweet from a marinade of coconut milk. The Bangkok Drunken Man noodles are thick, chewy and rich, with just a hint of heat. The Panang curry carries some heat and, best of all, is rich with the aroma and pleasantly complex flavor of kaffir lime leaves. My favorite moments at Bangkok Station were with a spoonful of that curry under my nose.

There’s a real strength and focus on attractive plating here, but those lime leaves reminded me of the things I was missing in the other dishes. Where was the funk of fish sauce and the zing of chiles in the papaya salad? Where was the depth of galangal in the coconut soup? Why wasn’t my mouth being pushed and pulled by bold flavors, the heat, the sour, the salt and the funk of that Thai food can possess?

Perhaps this is a kitchen playing it too safe. I’d suggest you do the same. Order a Singha and a plate of Panang chicken curry and enjoy the lights.

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