Thai restaurants seem to come and go at a high frequency in Phoenix, expanding and contracting in loosely affiliated networks with establishments of the same name owned by different family members or business associates. One local veteran, Thai Rama, has varied its suburban locations over the years but has remained a consistent presence at its original address in central Phoenix. Near the Melrose and Grandview neighborhoods, Thai Rama has stood for several decades in a standalone building a few blocks west of the 7th Avenue / Camelback light rail station.
The restaurant site lies along a lonely stretch of West Camelback that awaits future redevelopment. The decor is nothing special, but it’s not shabby either. It’s pretty typical “ethnic” restaurant 101 decor with booths and tables surrounded by wall decorations from Thailand. The best seating is along Camelback, on the north side of the dining room, where spacious booths have windows that provide a view of the passing trains. There is no bike rack per se, so riders will have to lock up at a pole in the parking lot.
Start out with some egg rolls for a basic appetizer. They’re vegetarian, crisp, fresh, and not too greasy. For a more intense alternative, try the tod mun, or fish cakes. These are made with a puree of white fish, usually catfish, and then given abundant flavor with red curry paste redolent of coriander seeds, chilies, lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime, garlic, and more. It’s probably the restaurant’s strongest appetizer. Soups include the usual choices like tom ka gai, chicken in a coconut milk broth with herbs. Noodle and wonton soups are sometimes available as specials.
The curries contain typically complex Thai blends of flavors. The green curry is noticeably spicy even when requested mild, and the massaman curry stands out at both locations. While many Thai restaurants will instantly throw whatever protein is requested in whatever sauce the customer prefers, massaman curry should be treated differently. Thai Rama gets it right with beef or chicken, along with potatoes, slowly simmered in a sauce based on coconut and peanut flavors. The result is a sort of Thai pot roast with a distinct peppery flavor but not overpowering heat.
Among the noodle dishes, pad see ew is simple but effective with wide noodles combined with broccoli, meat or tofu, and soy sauce. Baked silver noodles with shrimp, an occasional whiteboard special, follows more of a hot pot approach with thin pasta in a clay vessel with whole large prawns. Grediaw graphrao, wide rice noodles with broccoli and red peppers, is fiery, even when ordered medium. Rad na, a Chinese-Thai amalgam of broccoli and wide noodles in gravy is the only dish that falls short, with the sauce so thick it can border on gelatinous.
Papaya salad, or som tum, is served meatless, omitting the shrimp often found in this dish. While there is a dedicated vegetarian section of the menu, many of the curries listed with beef, chicken, or pork can be made with tofu instead of the listed meat. Adding to the variety, each night a whiteboard near the restaurant’s entrance lists half a dozen specials, many of them frequently recurring, but all reasonably interesting. Seafood is often featured among the whiteboard items. Hoo mok talay is a flavorful mixed seafood curry; crab fried rice is tamer but still appealing.
There are over a dozen stir-fry on the menus. Many are light with predominant notes of ginger or basil and plentiful vegetables combined with the chosen protein. In contrast, gratiam prig Thai, a garlic stir fry, comes with a thick, dark sauce with a result in some ways more like a viscous curry in than a stir fry. Goong paht khanah, shrimp with broccoli and oyster sauce, shows a strong Chinese influence. Fried rice comes in a house style with choice of meat or tofu, as well as a pineapple version that recalls the classic dish from old school American-Chinese-Thai menus.
Lunch specials are a dependable lineup of curries, noodles dishes, and stir-fries presented in individual servings with an egg roll, a fried wonton, steamed rice, and a cup of soup full of vegetables, tofu, scallions, and peas. Try the Mango Delight for a light dish with both a bit of fruit and spice. Thai Rama generally does not hold back on the spice, and with dishes like gang pah, a meatless red curry in a style known as “prig khing.” the medium setting produces a steady burn, and the hot setting can be as intense as Phoenix pavement in July.
To drink, the best bets are iced tea with condensed milk or beer. Like just about every Thai restaurant in town, Thai Rama sells the ubiquitous Singha, a pale lager, along with some familiar domestic bottled brands. There’s also a small selection of wine by the glass, but no cocktails. For dessert, mango with sticky rice is an appealing choice, if it’s available. When in season, the slightly tart tropical fruit is balanced with starchy grain and a smooth, sweet topping of coconut milk. Otherwise, coconut ice cream made on the premises is the best finish.
To be sure there have been a number of new Thai restaurants that have opened (and closed) along the light rail corridor over the past decade. Most of them are worth celebrating upon their arrival and mourning upon closure, but at the same time it’s important not to forget the classic places that have served Thai food for continuously for decades. With its longstanding location in central Phoenix, isolated as it is between stations in a zone that waits for some of the construction now occurring on nearby Central Avenue, Thai Rama keeps its own tradition alive.
1221 W. Camelback Rd., Phoenix AZ 85013