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Friday, April 06, 2018

Thai Score

From the Food Vault Dept.: I was delighted to discover this restaurant a decade ago, and am even more delighted that it endures, because I’m thus able to treat myself to a regular dose of khao soi, a dish like no other – and prepared here with a particular richness I haven’t found at the few other Thai restaurants I’ve visited that serve it.


IT’S NOT JUST THE EXCELLENT THAI FOOD that awaits. It’s the fact that you can order a $7 bowl of khao soi for lunch ($8 for dinner) and enjoy an amazingly fulfilling meal. It features chicken and two types of noodle along with other flavorful leaves and shoots, and it swims in a coconut-scented curry that livens the palate without causing incendiary damage.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
In short, this can be one of your more economical stops. You can also dine (as I often do) as if you’ve not eaten in weeks, and make your way from appetizer to miso soup to this entrée and that, guaranteeing that you’ll leave laden with take-home containers.

And this is happening in a most unprepossessing space in an unlikely part of Albany. Not far from the intersection of Central Ave. and Everett Rd. is a Home Depot. Enter the parking lot, but veer left. A small strip mall sits near the highway, and you’ll find, after a glance or two, the frills-free space that is Capital Thai.

How long has it been hiding here? Seven months, I was told during a recent visit. Three months, I was told a month ago. No matter. It’s here and, based on the dinner crowd that arrived during my own dinner last week, it’s being discovered.

It couldn’t be much plainer. Save for a few decorative wall hangings, this could be just about any kind of low-budget dining room. A sushi bar against one wall and, of course, the aromas confirm the promise, one a neon window sign, of Thai food and sushi, one of those at-first-glance jarring combinations that we’ve grown to expect – but sushi stations are showing up in just about all Asian restaurants.

Order by the individual piece of sushi ($1.50-$2) or by the roll, many of which are fish free ($3.75-$8.50), or avail yourself of the lunch or dinner combos listed on the regular menu, which ranges from the $8 vegetarian sushi lunch to a massive all-inclusive dinner special priced at ten times that amount.

Although I confined myself to an Alaska roll ($5.25), one of the Americanized varieties, the lengthy, check-what-you-want additional menu includes most of the traditional varieties, including tempura rolls.

Not surprisingly, then, tempura figures into the regular menu, on the appetizer list, alongside typical Thai fare like satay ($5), the dumplings called gyoza ($5), and pla meuk thot (fried squid, $7).

Gyoza dumplings (choose a beef or vegetable filling) are fried to sturdy crispness, served with a curried dipping sauce you’ll be tempted to finish on its own. Fried tofu ($4) looks like fried toast, with a side of gingery peanut sauce.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
A version of the deep-fried pastry known as samosa ($5), most commonly found on Indian menus, featured a similar potato-veg filling with added chicken and scallions; it’s presented with a thick chili sauce. And each of these starters is deceptively substantial.

Nevertheless, we added an order of seaweed salad ($4) because my daughter is hooked on the sesame-infused flavor.

With eight different duck preparations on the menu, this place means business. I’ve yet to try any, although the fascinatingly named lard prik duck ($15 lunch, $17 dinner) will be first: a duck half is filed with broccoli, onions, peppers, scallions and spicy chili.

Pad Thai leads the noodle-dish list. Sampled on a previous visit, it’s a lively example of what you expect from this combo of noodles, sprouts, egg, peanuts and your choice of meat (which is how the noodle dishes are priced, ranging from $7-$9 for lunch, $9-$11 for dinner).

One menu feature I find delightful is a listing of accompaniments. That is, you choose a main ingredient – chicken, pork, beef or tofu ($7/9); shrimp, squid or scallops ($9/$11) – then add another dominant flavor. Baby corn, for instance, or mixed veg with oyster sauce. Or garlic, cashews or sweet and sour sauce. My wife chose chicken with ginger and was pleased with additional scallions, peppers, straw mushrooms and more, finished in a ginger-spiced bean sauce.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
When I asked for the spiciest of the curries, I was led to red. It didn’t prove to be all that heat-intense, but it lacked nothing in flavor. And it’s one of several varieties, again priced according to main ingredient.

Once you sample the khao soi, I promise you’ll be hooked. And thus will join an international cadre of fanatics who celebrate this multi-cultural dish. Although you’re most likely to find it in a Thai eatery, that’s because Burmese restaurants are far fewer.

The dish is a staple of northern Thailand, but betrays a Muslim origin in its use of meat and Burmese provenance in its name – and there’s even a similarity to Malaysian laksa. The received speculation about the origins of khao soi suggests that its name comes from a Thai phrase meaning “to go down the lane,” but more credible speculation relates to the Burmese term  khauk-hswe, which refers to the making of noodles.

An unusual (for Thai food) conflation of spices also marks it as something more cosmopolitan. The curry is light, poured over noodles and meat, and it’s topped with fried noodles and a dollop of coconut cream. Alongside is served a dish of cilantro, chopped onion and a slice of lime, a simplified version of what can include pickled mustard greens, fried shallots, mung beans and more.

Capital Thai may be short on looks, but with a staff of friendly, eager servers and food finished with vibrant flavors, you’ll do as I’ve done and return quickly. Because it also happens to be one of the best bargains in town.

Capital Thai Restaurant, 997 Central Ave., Albany, 489-4840, Classic Thai dishes and other Asian fare, including sushi, with bargain-priced noodle soups like the exotic khao soi. Serving Mon-Fri 11:30-9:30, Sat-Sun noon-9:30. AE, D, MC, V.

Metroland Magazine, 10 April 2008

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