In many Asian religions and cultures, the lotus flower has long been associated with purity and beauty. Thai Lotus, a restaurant in a former IHOP that shares a parking lot with a bare-bones strip mall, is definitely not going to be confused with a delicate flower in terms of appearance. The converted chain restaurant has been enlivened on the inside with a little bit of southeast Asian decor, but the outside is still a plain design. Nevertheless, the delicacy and complexity of the food, rather than the aesthetics of the space, are what makes Thai Lotus worth a visit.
The pancake-house-turned-Thai-restaurant is located just a block north of the 19th Avenue / Glendale light rail station. The area lacks bike racks, so a post or pole will have to do for securing two-wheeled transport. The small foyer has a whiteboard displaying daily specials and staff usually greet customers just beyond there. Booths and tables fill the room in a configuration unchanged from the IHOP days. As one would expect at a former breakfast restaurant, there is no bar in the room, although Thai Lotus does serve a limited selection of wine and bottled beers.
There are plenty of shareable starters on the menu, and one standout is the tod mun, or fish cakes. Made of chopped white fish shaped into patties, these come six-to-an-order, one more than the quintet served in many Thai restaurants. That distinction may seem a little like the 11 setting on Spinal Tap’s amplifiers, but it’s a welcome bonus and makes the dish easier to manage within a group or family dining together. The cakes have a slightly chewy, but not rubbery, texture; a mild level of spice within; and an accompaniment of cucumber and chiles.
Egg rolls, pot stickers, coconut shrimp, wontons, crisp tofu, and other fried treats make up most of the rest of the appetizer menu, but for something more interesting, the Thai sausages are worth exploring. In many ways, they’re familiar pork sausages, but the blend of spices is clearly differentiated from what one would expect in a German bratwurst or a Sicilian sausage. Among the salads, the tom sum, made from green papayas, is a serviceable version of a benchmark dish with abundant ground peanuts and plump shrimp, albeit with a surprisingly mild spice level.
In fact, if there’s anything to be wary of at Thai Lotus it’s a tendency to turn the heat down. Anyone who really wants a little burn should ask for “hot” or “extra hot” when ordering. At Thai Lotus, the expected complexity of flavors is usually present, but the kitchen seems to be holding back on the chiles out of fear of overwhelming newcomers to the cuisine. If the food still lacks that essential heat when delivered to a table, a tray full of condiments — chili oil, soy sauce, red pepper flakes, and the like — can be requested as a way of adding a little more flavor at the table.
Thai Lotus offers the usual spectrum of curries: red, yellow, green, and panang. The restaurant adds a few specialties such as pumpkin curry, a red curry base with generous chunks of pumpkin meat in lieu of the usual vegetable mix; shrimp or roasted duck pineapple curry with the sweetness of fruit balancing the spice of the sauce; salmon choo chee with grilled fish and red curry paste; and masaman curry adorned with peanuts, made the right way with long-simmered beef or chicken rather than the customer’s choice of any protein added at the last minute.
Noodles run the gamut from the familiar pad Thai with thin, stir-fried noodles, chicken, shrimp, bean sprouts, and eggs to much thicker pad see ew with broccoli, soy sauce, and a choice of meat or tofu. A less expected choice is a noodle soup with meat balls and bean sprouts in broth. Other soups are served family style in classic styles such as tom yum with a sour broth redolent of lemongrass and tom kha in which the tart notes are smoothed and balanced with coconut milk. The po taek, or seafood hot pot, is a hearty meal in itself with a mix of fish in clear broth.
Stir fries and fried rice dishes constitute the remainder of the menu with almost three dozen choices available. Pad pak, a mix of napa cabbage, carrots, and broccoli, works best with big shrimp dusted with black pepper, although myriad protein choices are offered. The crab fried rice adds small shreds of crustacean to a typical mix of rice, vegetables, egg, and soy sauce. The spicy basil fried rice omits the egg but adds abundant minced basil leaves to give the dish a pungent flavor. The rice soups are more a meal-in-a-bowl with boiled grain and a choice of meat.
While Thai Lotus’ dinner menu is extensive, the lunch menu offers a more focused list of crowd-pleasers designed for quicker, cheaper midday meals. Twenty selections of popular curries, stir-fries, and noodle dishes come in smaller portions with an egg roll, a fried wonton, a large scoop of rice, and a small bowl of clear soup. Be warned that in the heat of the summer, however, that simple but effective soup disappears in favor of a bland iceberg salad topped with a unmistakably non-Thai topping of crumbled potato chips.
Dessert choices at Thai Lotus include coconut ice cream, an effective means of extinguishing any lingering burn from extra spicy food, and sweet sticky rice with ice cream, custard, or fresh mango when the tropical fruit is in season. Thai tea with cream is almost a liquid dessert due to its sweet, soothing nature. To be sure, this restaurant doesn’t look much like a lotus flower from the outside, but the food and service within are pleasing enough to make Thai Lotus stand out among the shopping centers and apartments that line this portion of 19th Avenue.
7023 N. 19th Ave., Phoenix AZ 85021