ELV note: The following article/review was posted today on the Las Vegas Weekly website, and will appear in print tomorrow. Click here to read it in its on-line format (slightly edited from how it appears below) , or continue below.
Photo: Beverly Poppe
Thai restaurants in America too often come in a one-size-fits-all formula. One Panang curry or pad prik king can taste pretty much like any other, most curries all come from the same cans, and if you’ve had one larb you’ve had them all. Most Thai restaurateurs don’t deviate from these formulas – in fact they depend on them – because they know it is this familiarity that helps them capture the customers who crave the sweet-savory-spicy trifecta of flavors for which this cuisine is famous. So generic is Thai food in Las Vegas (with one exception – Lotus of Siam) that when a new one popped up a year ago on West Sahara, boasting a large, white on blue sign advertising a specific type of Thai food, aficionados took notice. This is not your same old, tedious Thai, the sign seemed to be saying, and within a few bites of larb ped (boneless ground duck in chili and lime) or Issan duck soup, you knew you were in the presence of something special. For special is exactly what Weera Thai is, and seekers of the unique in this cuisine finally have another option when they want to explore the fiery food of this country.
Weera is the first name of the chef/owner of the restaurant – Weera Thonguthaisiri – and Issan is the food referred to on the sign and on a special portion of the menu. Both the chef and the food come from this northeastern section of Thailand – a region known for its poverty but also for simple, incendiary cuisine. Issan food is less fussy than other Thai food, and favors Chinese-leaning noodles, lots of salads, and ground meats invariably tossed with lime juice, chilies and herbs.
Before you get to them, though, an order of crab stick is mandatory. Crab meat mixed with cream cheese is wrapped in pencil-sized rice paper sticks and deep-fried in sort of an elongated crab Rangoon, served with a house made plum sauce. These will disappear quickly, and their textural perfection signals someone in the kitchen understands how to balance and deep fry an appetizer. You’ll then be tempted to dive into a definitive duck curry or that duck bone soup (containing as it does half a duck carcass) , but not so fast pilgrim. Surely you’ve had dadd deaw (beef or pork jerky) dozens of times before, but most assuredly, you’ve never had it like this – dried, tender and deeply flavorful – not like a piece of saddle leather requiring endless mastication.
Having polished off those appetizers, the salads will tempt you next. After repeated trips here, you learn that mincing and mashing are the watchwords of many a dish, so you order crispy catfish salad (expecting deep fried chunks of the fish). What arrives is something that challenges your understanding of what a salad is, as golden brown, crispy ornaments of catfish lace arrive – the effect achieved by making a paste of the fish before frying it — garnished with julienned apples and a peppery apple dressing. Surprises like this continue throughout the menu. Larb plar (ground fish with spices) isn’t very common anywhere but northeastern Thailand, but isn’t any less delicious for it. Likewise, ped nom tok (boneless roasted duck with chilies) is quite a treat – both because of its extraordinary flavor, and the way everyone’s face lights up after every bite.
Whole fish are given the full, deep-fried and festooned treatment (every bit as tasty as Lotus’ versions), but those in your crowd who don’t like picking around bones will find the spicy sea bass hot pot deeply sour and satisfying – as the fish comes in beautifully filleted, snow white squares. If fish and fowl aren’t their things, direct them straight to the khor moo yang (marinated barbecued pork with house made spicy tamarind sauce) – a new take on ‘cue that shows the Chinese influence on this cuisine.
Surprises like these abound on the menu, and will make you a repeat customer in no time. Weera is anything but your typical Thai, and the Thonguthaisiri’s have taken the time and money to refurbish this store make it warm and comfortable, and definitely the class act in a small strip mall known for its stiletto shops. In that sense it’s a lot like Lotus: a gastronomic gem sitting amidst low end retail joints that have seen better days. For Vegas’ Thai food lovers, though, it’s just the opposite. Because of Weera’s arrival, things have never been better, and lovers of this cuisine should duck in soon.
- 3839 W. Sahara Ave., 873-8749
- Sunday, noon-9:30 p.m.; Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.