With a name like “Mekong Plaza,” it would be easy to assume the shopping center in west Mesa is all about Vietnamese retail and dining. The Mekong River is best known for its delta in the southernmost reaches of Vietnam, but the reality is that the Mekong River flows through six nations on its way from Tibet to the South China Sea. Among those countries is Thailand, so it should not be surprising to see a little Thai food inside Mekong Plaza. Filling that niche is Thai Spices, which serves exactly the type of food described in its name.
Thai Spices is situated at the south end of Mekong Plaza, which is in turn located on the southwestern corner of Dobson and Main and just a quarter mile west of the Sycamore / Main light rail station. There are entrances from both the parking lot and the building’s interior. Both offer a clear path to the host station in the restaurant’s L-shaped dining room. The decor is nice by Mekong Plaza’s normally minimalist standards. There’s a lot of tile and granite, along with the expected portraits of Thai royalty.
At first glance, the menu at Thai Spices looks right out of the American Thai restaurant playbook. The entrees are divided into familiar categories of curries, noodles, and stir-fry dishes. These are generally prepared as well at most of the local competition, and some veer into above average territory. Green curry is fragrant and displays nuance beyond mere chili heat. A generous quantity of eggplant supplements the customer’s choice of protein source. Chuchee fish, listed as a chef’s special, blends panang curry with lightly breaded fish.
|pad kee mow with shrimp|
Pad see ew is nicely done here. The gravy is flavorful from soy sauce and blends well with bits of egg and crisp broccoli florets. As in many dishes here, gai lan, or Chinese broccoli, appears instead of the variant more common in this country. Pad kee mow takes the same wide, flat rice noodles and pairs them with a more nuanced sauce based on chili, garlic, and basil. The pad Thai benefits from a tamarind sauce that provides a slightly tart note to a dish that can often be prepared too sweet.
|chicken satay lunch entree|
The most popular entrees are available as lunch specials, which feature a freshly fried vegetable egg roll and a small cup of clear tom yum soup. For a heartier, meatier midday meal, choose one of the lunch combos, either barbecued pork or chicken satay served with pad thai and an egg roll. The satay is tender and generously portioned. Expect four sizeable skewers when ordering the dish as an appetizer. Mussels in a lemongrass broth are the most flavorful of the starters for a table to share.
|tom ka noodle soup|
Although the lunch specials all economical, the restaurant’s traditional menu, labeled as the “True Taste of Thailand,” is the best bargain of all. These dishes are all priced at $5.95 (Watch for an extra charge for rice, though.) and are based on unpretentious dishes that don’t enjoy a lot of exposure on local menus. Tom ka noodle soup takes a traditional appetizer and makes it into an entree. Flat rice noodles swim in a coconut milk broth full of mushrooms, chicken breast, and a little gai lan while lemongrass, ginger, and chilies add flavor.
|Thai boat beef noodle soup|
The most intriguing is Thai boat beef noodle soup, which might be considered more canal food than street food since it is often vended from vessels floating in the klongs of Bangkok. This meal in a bowl is definitely not pho. It has a thicker, darker broth with less emphasis on star anise. The noodles are thicker, wider, and flatter than the familiar Vietnamese noodles, and there’s no table salad of fresh herbs. Instead, gai lan is already mixed in. The meat is one dense meatball, cut in pieces, and chunks of tender stew beef, albeit with a little gristle.
|papaya salad with salted crab|
A cold dish from the traditional menu is papaya salad with salted crab. The more familiar Americanized version might use shrimp or no seafood at all. This one features a little bit of crab inside the shell. Pick it up with your hand and suck the meat out. There’s just a little crab but enough to represent good value for under $6 and to give a taste. The dressing, however, seems to depart from tradition by depending more on vinegar than fish sauce. Pumpkin tofu curry is a meatless, but hearty, item on the traditional menu.
|pumpkin tofu curry|
Thai Spices has a bar. There are a few cocktails available, but in the absence of a dedicated bartender, it’s probably better to stick to wine and bottle beer. The usual Thai brews Singha and Phuket are offered along with familiar domestic beers. For dessert, there’s coconut ice cream and even watermelon sorbet when that fruit is available. The kitchen prepares sticky rice with either fresh mango when that fruit is in season or with custard when it is not. Either way, this dessert is probably the most satisfying option for two or more to share.
|custard with sticky rice|
Considering that it replaced a unique restaurant serving Vietnamese feasts of seven courses of fish and beef, Thai Spices might seem a redundant outpost of a cuisine that can be found just about everywhere. Nevertheless, it’s the sole Thai restaurant, not only at Mekong Plaza, but also in the void between numerous competitors in Tempe and Downtown Mesa’s excellent Nuntahporn’s. Those factors, along with the good value of the traditional menu, make Thai Spices worth a visit when exploring all the dining options at Dobson and Main.
66 S. Dobson Rd., #133, Mesa AZ 85202