Recent headlines have lamented the closure of MetroCenter, once the largest mall in the Southwest. Long before MetroCenter’s rise and eventual fall, Phoenix saw the development of its first mall: Park Central. In the heart of the area now known as Midtown, Park Central’s development in the 1950s was the first step in retail’s departure from the traditional downtown business district three miles south. Of course, Park Central, like most malls, has faded as a shopping destination, but it is now finally re-emerging as an office and health care cluster.
The biggest move forward for Park Central is the construction of a new health sciences campus for Creighton University, an institution based in Omaha that has long sent its students to nearby St. Joseph’s hospital for rotations. With all the new construction, some of the remaining Park Central structures have been renovated to house an array of food service tenants, and one of those restaurants, Thai Basil, has been able to remain in operation during not only the mall’s renewal, but also throughout the pandemic and recession that have followed shortly after.
Thai Basil is a name seen throughout the Phoenix Metropolitan Area. It’s not exactly a chain, though. Different locations operate under separate ownership with slightly different menus, all of them essentially derived from the classic American Thai restaurant playbook, but each with a few nuances of its own. In that respect, Thai Basil at Park Central is not quite the same Thai Basil on Rural Road near the Arizona State University Campus in Tempe, Thai Basil Signature in downtown Phoenix, or any of the other Thai Basil restaurants in other corners of the region.
This particular Thai Basil is situated halfway between the Thomas/Central and Osborn/Central light rail stations. Among the office towers of Midtown and the new construction of the Creighton building, the restaurant can be found set back from the street in a small cluster of restaurants in the old mall space. New awnings and signs mark the refreshed storefront. The small interior is full of dark wood and classic elements of Thai restaurant decor. A patio provides a potentially desirable environment during times of uncertainty about the safety of indoor restaurant spaces.
The menu here replicates the format of many Thai restaurants around town with categories for appetizers, soups, stir-fries, curries, and noodle dishes. The starters include favorites like crisp spring rolls with a minced vegetable filling, skewers of grilled chicken satay with cucumber relish and peanut sauce, coins of fried sweet potato with plum sauce on the side. Other shareable dishes include classic soups like tom yum, a sweet-and-sour broth with mushrooms, and tom kha, a thicker soup with a base of coconut milk seasoned with kaffir lime and lemongrass.
Stir-fries are the category in which to find the restaurant’s namesake dish with diced leaves of opal basil, as well as assorted vegetable dishes such as pad pak. As with almost all menu entrees, these can be either enjoyed as-is or augmented with the diner’s choice of tofu, chicken, beef, pork, shrimp, calamari, salmon, tilapia, or a mixture of seafood. Prik khing is a spicier dish with green beans in a curry sauce and a choice of protein while other stir-fires accentuate the textures of cashew nuts or eggplant of the distinctive flavors of garlic or ginger.
The curries come in all of the usual color variants: red, green, and yellow. Panang and masaman are two other styles of curry with a foundation of coconut milk, while jungle curry is the sole choice without that ingredient. The result is a less viscous curry but also a more fiery one. Curry crosses over to the noodles section of the menu in the Bangkok street noodle dish. In this bowl, the noodles themselves have a green tint that is enhanced by the herbs in the slightly spicy sauce. A vibrant assortment of vegetables adds to variety of the dish.
Other noodles dishes are instantly recognizable from countless other menus found around town: pad thai with egg, bean sprouts, scallions, and peanuts; pad see ew, wider noodles with broccoli and egg in a soy-based sauce; and pad-rad-nau, thick noodles in a thick, dark gravy. The same category of dishes is where fried rice dishes can be found. Traditional kao pad, or Thai-style fried rice, relies primarily on soy and fish sauces for its flavor. The crab fried rice is a bit more herbal, dappled with green flecks of seasoning and white bits of crab meat throughout.
One aspect of the restaurant’s offerings that should not be overlooked is the salads, all of them substantial enough to serve as entrees. Expect not only the usual som tum salad of green papaya, but also salads of grilled prawns, beef, or ground chicken with lemongrass and mint. Desserts include classic sweets such as sticky rice with mango and fried banana with ice cream. For something less common, a sweet tapioca and corn pudding is available in a miniature size perfect for the one person in a party that wants to order dessert even as others abstain.
While most Thai Basil restaurants offer beer and wine, this particular location does not have a liquor license, most likely due to its small size and emphasis on daytime traffic from Midtown offices. With many workers telecommuting at least temporarily, that business may have diminished, but health care remains a growth industry. With the arrival of Creighton, as well as Banner corporate offices nearby, Park Central is showing new signs of life, and it’s satisfying to see an existing restaurant like Thai Basil incorporated into the site’s ongoing redevelopment.
3110 N. Central Ave., Phoenix AZ 85012
Thomas/Central and Osborn/Central stations