I was clued into Thai Star by a chef friend who told me it’s the only Thai place in the city she and her husband truly love.
“We can’t find anything else as authentic,” she said.
So, I brought the couple along to my meal there and, I’ve got to say, there is something very authentically Atlantan about a Thai restaurant on a busy Norcross highway in a building that was probably once a Mexican joint, considering the Spanish tile roof.
There were also some fun contradictions once we stepped inside. Amid the teak furnishings, dusky lighting and cozy crannies I’ve come to expect and enjoy from many a Thai restaurant, there were several rustic and very Southern paintings of watermelon slices. The non-fit couldn’t have been more charming.
One of the happiest contradictions came from our first dish — a cup of mushroom-laden coconut milk soup. It was layered with flavors, while also being simple and homey. A spritz of lime juice and chili oil droplets gave it essential tartness and a nose-clearing kick, yet it also had a sumptuous, velvety texture.
The key to the soup’s magic was the restraint with the coconut milk. It was present enough to give flavor and a hint of creaminess, but reserved enough that the soup didn’t feel oversaturated with fatty luxury.
Balance made our larb — the salad of savory ground chicken — sing as well. It’s so easy for this succulent standard to be overwhelmed by fish sauce. But Thai Star’s version let every note sing — bright, fresh mint, warming chilies, and just the right amount of yummy fishy funk.
One more dish wowed me with its finely honed flavors — the brothy shellfish-based pad talay. It had the kind of smoky spice that bathes your mouth in a slow, sultry burn. The effect was so beguiling, I barely minded squid that were pure rubber (I know some eaters prefer it this way). Or mushy scallops (though they did taste fresh and sweet). Or mussels promised on the menu that weren’t even there. The shrimp, it must be said, were lovely — plump and perfectly cooked.
There were some other problematic proteins. The Thai barbecue chicken was a pretty yellow color, the result of an aromatic turmeric rub, but the tastiness of the skin was canceled out by dry, overcooked flesh.
The thin bits of beef in our prik pao noodles also were dry, even when bathed in sauce. But the rice noodles themselves were a wonderfully diggable pile of supple, chili-flecked ribbons and crunchy veg. The only problem with those bright red specks in our noodles? They imparted no heat at all, though we’d asked our server for medium spice level.
I suppose I can’t blame the staff for being conservative with heat that you can’t subtract once it’s added. And that’s why a critical part of any meal at Thai Star is the three-pot caddy of condiments. My in-the-know companions asked for it at the meal’s onset, but I hope Thai Star offers it to all their diners. The trio features a heady dust of ground dried chilies, a sweet chili glaze and, best of all, prik nam pla, a magical concoction of fish sauce and chilies.
I tossed a large dollop into my prik pao and the dish was transformed into a dance on the tongue. The same went for the sticky-sweet, crinkly pad Thai.
Sauce was also an essential transformer of a fish cake starter, tod man pla. Alone, the deep brown, fried fish cakes were a bland little stack of fritters. But, douse them with their accompanying cucumber salad — sweet, crunchy, fresh and redolent of raw chili — and the sauce became the headliner, the cakes a mere vehicle.
There were enough gems here — including a very respectable if not mold-breaking massaman curry — that I wanted to keep exploring at meal’s end. So, we ordered a dessert of sticky rice with tea-green custard and a simple, luscious sliced mango.
Oh, that spiced, milky rice! And the unexpectedly and pleasantly warm custard, satiny in texture and eggy in the best way. I never had such treats as a child, yet this dessert made me nostalgic. I could just picture someone’s grandmother stirring love into the soupy pudding.
I guess you could call that its own kind of authenticity. And that’s a sort I’ll seek out every time.
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