Rural Road is anything but rural these days. The segment that runs through Tempe before assuming the name Scottsdale Road north of the Salt River is not only a wide arterial street, but is also teeming with new construction. It’s decidedly suburban with the potential to become more urban if the city makes the right decisions in the years to come. Just across from Arizona State University’s Barrett Honors College, a location of Thai Basil is typical of the scattered small businesses that intermingle with chain restaurants and massive new construction projects.
If the Thai Basil name sounds familiar, it’s because variants of the brand exist throughout the region. While the restaurants bearing this name may have a common origin, they have since splintered with different locations now under separate ownership with distinct menus. This particular restaurant identifies itself as “Thai Basil ASU” on its website and menus, although the university’s efforts to protect its intellectual property most likely keep “ASU” from becoming part of the establishment’s official name. The sign over the door says only “Thai Basil.”
The building appears to be a former chain restaurant of some sort. It’s a standalone structure that speaks to another era of car-oriented, stucco-clad buildings that proliferated near the ASU campus before the arrival of the current wave of vertical development. The restaurant is three blocks south of the Rural/University light rail station, and Tempe Streetcar will stop even closer at Rural and Apache when it starts passenger service in 2021. Small bike racks are found on both the east and west sides of the building. Choose whichever side is shaded at the moment.
Inside, there’s dark wood and natural light. A small bar is largely used for pickup of takeout orders. Upon entering, make sure to turn around and look at several boards where specials are displayed. Some of those dabble in foods like katsu and teriyaki associated with east Asian countries other than Thailand. Others such as basil lamb or roast duck curry give diners a deeper taste of Thai flavors beyond the familiar favorites that predominate on the menu. The printed menu covers all the typical Thai bases in terms of curries, stir-fries, and noodle dishes.
The happy hour menu, offered every day except Sunday from 3 until 6 PM, offers most of the regular appetizers at slightly reduced prices. Fried tofu, chicken satay, and crisp spring rolls are among the well-prepared crowd-pleasers available at a discount during early dinner hours. Crispy sweet potatoes and cheese rolls are less commonly encountered, but fit the fried food bill. Entree-sized salads include som tum with slivers of green papaya, green beans, and shrimp and grilled beef or prawns with lemongrass, mint, chili, and lime juice all served over lettuce.
Big soups suitable for sharing include the Thai restaurant classics tom yum, with its distinctive broth infused with lemongrass, and tom kha,with a thick base of coconut milk. Both of these, along with crystal noodles and hot-and-sour soups, can be augmented with the diner’s choice of protein: chicken, tofu, pork, beef, shrimp, calamari, or fish. These same choices apply in the case of most of the entrees, including the curries, which are presented in their usual preparations of red, green, and yellow, as well as panang and massaman varieties.
Stir-fry dishes, or “sauteed” as they are grouped on the menu, begin with the namesake Thai Basil dish. This seems to be common across the myriad restaurants under the loosely defined Thai Basil umbrella. Expect plenty of the fresh herb in the dish’s name, as well as garlic and a variety of vegetables. Other dishes accentuate flavors such as garlic and ginger, showcasing a strong Chinese influence typical of many Thai restaurants in the United States. The Orange Flavor dish, one step removed from orange chicken, is even more overtly American-Chinese.
Noodle dishes include perennial favorites such as pad Thai and wide-bodied models like pad-see-ew with broccoli and egg in oyster sauce and rad nar with vegetables in a thick gravy with a strong note of soy sauce. These dishes are also Chinese-influenced, just like many of the stir-fries and fried rice dishes. The standard Thai fried rice dish on the menu, also seasoned with plenty of soy sauce, is available in a spicy version and another variant with pineapple. The specials board will often add another option in terms of fried rice speckled bits of crab meat.
For dessert, there are two options: fried banana with coconut ice cream and sticky rice with custard or fresh mango depending on the season. This restaurant’s version of the latter uses vibrant purple rice for the dish, allowing for a striking contrast in color when paired with fresh fruit. The small bar serves beer and wine with the usual bottled brews from Thailand, Singha and Chang, as well as Chinese and Japanese export beers and a few domestic favorites. Non-alcoholic drinks include jasmine tea, limeade, and fresh coconut when available.
With a familiar menu of Thai food with strong Chinese influences, the nuances that distinguish this particular instance of Thai Basil from restaurants with the same name are subtle. Nevertheless, the food quality is consistent, and occasional flourishes on the specials boards add welcome variety. With new dormitories and apartments lining both sides of its considerable girth, Rural Road is becoming a wide canyon with walls of housing on both sides. Thai Basil provides a bit of character to break up the monotony of this not-so-rural thoroughfare.
1111 S. Rural Rd., Tempe AZ 85281
University / Rural Station