The odds weren't in restaurateur David Chouang's favor on June 3, 2005, when lightning hit the Bangkok Pavilion restaurant in the Windmill Square Shopping Center and set fire to the roof, which crashed into the restaurant's interior.
Bangkok Pavilion had grown a bit shabby over the past two decades and had definitely needed a makeover, but this act of God required a hell of a lot more. Chouang had to rebuild the venue nearly from the ground up, which took 18 months, a lot of money and a ribbon of red tape. But last November, Chouang opened a new set of doors, having moved the main entrance slightly to the south, where windows once looked out onto two parking lots.
Chouang bought Bangkok Pavilion in 1992 from its original owners and has built a loyal following, even as his competition more than quadrupled around town. Chouang's place has a shaky claim to being the metro's first Thai restaurant. It may indeed have been the first to serve Thai fare exclusively, but the old Willy Restaurant at 15th Street and Grand served both Thai and Chinese dishes long before Bangkok Pavilion opened in the suburbs. (The former Willy has now gone strictly Siamese, at a joint called Thai Paradise.)
Bangkok Pavilion does have one undisputed claim to local history. Back in the 1980s, this business launched the career of Ann Liberda, who started as a waitress and then left to create her own mini-empire of Thai Place operations. Her success certainly eclipsed that of her former employer with each opening of another new Thai Place, the Bangkok Pavilion seemed a little more dated and dowdy.
The new Bangkok Pavilion is significantly brighter than its predecessor, with pale-gray floor tiles, creamy yellow walls and blue laminated tabletops. One corner has been set aside for the buffet tables, the opposite side for a tiny bar with a TV mounted on the wall.
"It has all the charm of a Perkins," my friend Carol Ann said as we sat down for our first dinner in the rebuilt restaurant.
Well, there is an institutional sparseness to the décor, relieved only by a smattering of silk ferns here and there. Chouang apparently saved all his flair for the menu, which lists among its dishes "Kiss Me" (pork, chicken or beef sautéed in garlic and sherry) and "Lovely Sweet Honey Bunch" (shrimp slathered in sweet-and-sour sauce).
We ordered Shrimp in a Blanket for a starter simply because the menu promised a "rich and tangy flavor you'll long to remember and order again and again." A better name for this appetizer might be Mummified Shrimp. The crustaceans are tightly bound in a wonton wrapper and deep-fried until the outside looks like ancient papyrus. The crunchy shrimp might have been tastier if the frying oil hadn't been a shade on the antique side itself.
"I'm not sure I want to order this again and again," Carol Ann said as she dipped a crackly crustacean into a bowl of sweet chili sauce.
For dinner, she contemplated ordering the chicken version of Kiss Me because, she confessed, "I don't get to use those words a lot lately."
I don't, either, but I wasn't about to order a dish to remind me of my dreary romantic life unless it was one of the vegetarian concoctions called "Where's the Beef!"
I did find a smidgen of well-done Paradise Beef on a combo platter called, inexplicably, Three Amigos. It's one of Bangkok Pavilion's house specialties, with another description far too alluring to pass up: "Its flavor will unleash a taste sensation that will break the taste barrier." After seven years as a full-time restaurant critic, I was more than ready for that!
Unfortunately, Three Amigos didn't unleash anything except disappointment. The Fire Chicken was dry, the beef was chewy I couldn't taste the "chef's special flavor sauce" at all and the Mammoth Jumbo Shrimp wasn't just an oxymoron but also downright bland. I added a new resolution to my growing list for 2007: I will no longer order dishes with any kind of "special sauce."
Carol Ann liked her meal a lot. She'd finally opted for Sweet Ginger Chicken, and the fragrant fresh ginger and onion made her almost giddy. "It's really very good," she told me.
A few nights later, I returned with Franklin and Lou Jane. The dining room was bustling with several large groups of native Thai diners. "That's a good sign," Lou Jane whispered. "It means the food is probably very authentic."
She felt less assured of that when she saw items such as Lovely Chicken and Robin Hood Ribs on the menu. And her mood darkened when she picked up a piece of greasy brown Thai toast from the House Combination Appetizer Plate. Once again, the cooking oil was too old. She looked askance at the whole jumble of deep-fried Shrimp in a Blanket, spring rolls and crab Rangoon. "This is stuff for people who are not really into real Thai food," she said.
She might as well have been talking about Franklin, who was delighted to see that the menu had a barbecue category that included a half-rack of baby-back ribs. They turned out to be tender and succulent, marinated in yet another "special sauce" I tasted some nuoc nam fish sauce and garlic in the mixture with the meat nearly falling off the bone.
Our other entrées weren't as successful. The classic noodle dish pad Thai tasted flat and sticky; the Roast Duck Darling wasn't crispy, as the menu promised, but chew and vaguely soggy. "Darling, maybe," Lou Jane said after taking a bite, "but not endearing." She was even more scandalized by the big ball of steamed white rice brought out for us to share with our dinners. It had been sitting in a steamer too long, and the grains of rice were actually dry and slightly crispy.
Unexpectedly, my favorite dining experience at Bangkok Pavilion was the lunch buffet, a real bargain at $6.95. The steam tables in the buffet corner were filled with fresh pad Thai that was vastly superior to the version I'd eaten with Lou Jane and Franklin. There was also a fine yellow curry with chicken and potatoes, steamed mussels that my fussy lunchmate Ned said were the best he'd ever eaten, and spicy bits of pork with green beans.
Sadly, though, on the night of my dinner with Lou Jane and Franklin, the only real highlight was the homemade coconut ice cream we shared for dessert. A decade ago, this restaurant topped its satiny ice cream with one or two soft, translucent lychees, as it might be served in Bangkok. Now, Chouang tops the frozen confection with neon-red maraschino cherries, as it might be served in Branson.