I wonder whether Ann Chatani, who owns the eight-month-old Thai House in the Gomer's Plaza shopping strip, might be performing a purification ritual of her own. Walking through the restaurant's front door, customers step into a closet-sized foyer that's dizzyingly fragrant. On one of my visits, a floral-scented candle was burning on a table, and I detected the faint aroma of an exotic incense. Could Chatani be warding off the spirits of this location's former restaurants?
That wouldn't be such a bad idea. Before Chatani turned the cavernous dining room into the tastefully appointed Thai House last summer, this venue was the site of an ill-fated Asian restaurant called China Spring (which was so terrible that I wanted to rub myself with a smudge stick after I ate there). Before that, it was a short-lived sister location of Carol Wu's successful Andy's Wok in Overland Park. (There have been other restaurants in this same corner site, but I can't remember any of them.)
Thai House may be the operation that finally breaks the unlucky spell. Its clean, attractive dining room seats more than 150 patrons, making it nearly as big as a reception hall. Chatani is trying to give this big ol' place a sense of quiet dignity: A crystal chandelier hangs in the middle of the main room, all of the vinyl-cloaked tables boast vases with fresh flowers and her chinaware is pretty. Servers are charming if a tad dazed and confused (which could be a side effect of the scented candle). But even if this Thai House has delusions of grandeur, it's more of a lovable joint.
It's definitely laid-back, which was reassuring on the night I wearily slumped into one of the comfortable booths after a particularly stressful day. Tax day, to be specific. Outside the big picture window to my right, I had a view of the parking lot and Holmes Road and two young adults wearing Statue of Liberty costumes and waving in last-minute clients for the Liberty Tax Service office, another Gomer's Plaza tenant.
There aren't many ethnic dining choices in this neighborhood, which is why Thai House is a pleasant surprise. I'll lay it on the line: The food coming out of Chatani's kitchen isn't quite on a par with the spectacular offerings served by Ann Liberda at her many Thai Place restaurants. Whereas Liberda's dishes are sumptuously seasoned with garlic, basil and ginger, the cooks at Thai House are surprisingly stingy with those intoxicating herbs.
Jo Marie sipped a cold Singha beer, and I indulged in a tall iced tea as we nibbled on the various appetizers heaped on the "Thai House Sampler." There were a couple of skewers of plump chicken satay, soft spring rolls and cigar-thin crispy egg rolls; here, that Chinese-American innovation known as crab rangoon is tucked into flat, square wonton envelopes. The server patiently explained which starter we should dip in which of the four sauces (including a neon-orange sweet-and-sour number that looked radioactive) and was stunned when Jo Marie asked for chili sauce. Most of the clientele here prefer the sweeter dips. But appetizers such as the puffy fried tofu require something punchier than peanut sauce, so I was thrilled when the fiery Sriracha sauce arrived.
We split the laab salad, a jumble of chopped cabbage sprinkled with minced pork, mint, lime juice and lots of cilantro. We decided to share dinners, too, though Bob was unexpectedly possessive with his bowl of mild, sweet Massaman curry stew. After one taste, I understood why he loved this luscious red concoction of coconut milk, peanut sauce and cardamom with beef chunks and soft potatoes. Sadly, though, Jo Marie's mound of phad Thai was a bit greasy, and my basil-fried rice was downright dreary.
I was slightly wary of returning for another visit, but I'm glad I did. I brought along my friend Ross, who loves Thai food the hotter, the better and had never heard of Chatani's place. Ross loved the décor, particularly the carved wooden statues of two beautiful (and nearly life-sized) women bedecked in gold leaf and artfully positioned green sequins. "Do you think they're from a temple?" I asked him. "Yes," he said, not missing a beat as he picked up a skewer topped with crispy wrapped shrimp, "a temple in Vegas."
Ross dubbed the fried crustaceans "shrimp pops," and they did seem to have a mysterious filling (cream cheese?) folded into the sheath of wonton along with the prawn. He was less amused by the battered green mussels, crunchy little breaded nuggets embedded with slightly chewy mussels. But he did discover a hint of nirvana in a modest pile of tender, deliciously spiced, grilled beef slices. Our server had assured us that we'd like it. "Everybody like juicy meat," she said with an angelic smile.
We pondered the possible double-entendre of that comment, then turned our attention to a steaming bowl of succulent Sriracha scallops. The soft scallops were tossed together with pineapple chunks and roasted cashews, drenched in a wonderfully mellow mahogany-colored sauce with sweet, tart and sour notes balancing the fiery Sriracha paste.
We'd also ordered tempura-fried crispy garlic scallops, but instead of that we accidentally received a bowl of crispy mixed seafood. That included big pieces of tempura-clad crabmeat fake crabmeat, of course, but when it's fried in airy batter, who gives a damn, right? Ross did. He wouldn't touch it, and the server quickly brought out the correct dish, which had the glorious fragrance of fresh garlic but surprisingly little of its flavor. "The sauce is mild to the point of bland," Ross complained.
More flavorful was a bowl of red curry with beef thin meat slices in a pale, milky broth spooned over steamed rice. It wasn't as splendid as those Sriracha scallops, but it was fine enough that we finished it.
Other patrons seemed thrilled to be eating at Thai House including one young man who ate his entire meal while maintaining an animated conversation on his cell phone. What's not to love about a place where the prices are inexpensive and table manners are optional?
Obviously, Chatani has chased off all of the venue's old bad energy. Now she just needs to let more herbs and spices work some magic on the food.