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 near Saigon, 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 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. Bike racks are found near the shopping center’s main entrance. The restaurant’s decor, a bit more upscale than most of Mekong Plaza, features 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 appetizers include fried food classics like chicken satay, crisp tofu, vegetable spring rolls, and gyoza with chicken or vegetable fillings. A chalkboard always seem to announce fish cakes as an option, but they’ve been disappointingly unavailable whenever requested. Although the protein source is completely different, the northern Thai sausages, made with pork instead of seafood, have a taste profile similar to those elusive fish cakes.
The salads are lighter and a bit less Americanized. A traditional item found at Thai Spices is papaya salad with salted crab. The more familiar version might use shrimp or no seafood at all. This one features a little bit of crab inside the shell. The pieces of crustacean can be eaten by hand in order to suck the meat out of the shell. Other entree-sized salads include fried calamari rings on a bed of mixed greens, grilled beef slices tossed in spicy lime dressing with onions,cucumber, tomatoes, and mint. Larb is a similar preparation with ground chicken or pork.
The entrees are divided into familiar categories of curries, noodle entrees, stir-fry dishes, and fried rice. 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. Spicy catfish, listed as a chef’s special, coats fillets of fish with a coating of red curry paste. The specials section of the menu is also where whole fish and duck entrees can be found.
The simply named “chicken noodle dish” involves stir-fried flat wide rice noodles with sliced poultry, egg, onions, bean sprouts and green onions. Pad see ew, a wide noodle dish seasoned with soy sauce, features gai lan, or Chinese broccoli, instead of the brassica more common in this country. Pad kee mow takes the same rice noodles and pairs them with more nuanced notes of chilies, garlic, and basil. The pad Thai benefits from a tamarind sauce that provides a slightly tart note to a dish that can often be too sweet when adapted for non-Thai tastes.
One intriguing choice 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 accompanying plate 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.
The most popular entrees are available at midday as lunch specials, which feature a freshly fried vegetable egg roll and a small cup of clear tom yum soup. For a heartier, meatier meal, there are larger lunch combos, either barbecued pork or chicken satay served with pad thai, rice, and an egg roll. As the popular lunch hour fades into early dinner service, there are happy hour specials every day from 3 until 7 PM involving discounted prices on favorite appetizers, as well as a dollar or two off on selected cocktails, beer, and wine by the glass.
Thai Spices has the only full bar at Mekong Plaza. There are a few original cocktails available such as the Thailander with Jim Beam, grenadine, and longan fruit. The usual Thai brews Singha and Chang are offered along with familiar Japansee beers. For dessert, there’s always coconut ice cream, fried banana fritters, and mango cheesecake. 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.
Considering that it replaced a unique restaurant serving traditional Vietnamese feasts of seven courses of fish and beef, Thai Spices might at first 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 area between Tempe and downtown Mesa. Those factors, along with some of the special dishes not found at every Thai restaurant around town, make Thai Spices worth a visit when exploring all the varied Asian dining options at Dobson and Main.
66 S. Dobson Rd., #133, Mesa AZ 85202