Among the many pleasant incongruities that ornament Pandan Thai Kitchen — starting with how this superbly authentic Thai restaurant is in a desultory strip mall in Crowley — none is more striking than the background of its husband and wife owner-chefs, Pook and Victor Thothong.
Both were born in Thailand and immigrated to the States before age 11, with Pook attending Burleson High School. But neither of them comes from a family famous for skilled cooks or sharp-minded restaurateurs. And once out of school, neither scurried to start mixing that first batch of Thai curry.
Instead, both became registered nurses.
But Pook and Victor do possess one attribute essential to all aspiring chefs and restaurant owners: an undeniable love of food, and an ardor to share it with others.
Even from hundreds of yards away, it’s hard to miss the cheery green and white signage of the four-month-old, 30-seat fast-casual Pandan Thai Kitchen. That bright exterior is echoed by a spotless, sun-filled interior, where walls are painted a shade of happy yellow and the D.I.Y. furnishings of reupholstered chairs, repainted tables and ceiling lamps come courtesy of Craigslist and Costco.
For amateur chefs, the Thothongs bring a remarkable appreciation for the delicate culinary choreography of salt and spicy, sweet and sour that so many chefs handle with a cudgel, not a caress.
A rustic paper bag of shrimp-rice chips ($4) arrives at the table, and each one is as airy as a cloud. While gazing through the menu, I nonchalantly dispatched a dozen or more of these weightless chip wonders, swiping them through a sauce of sweet chili paste and cream cheese.
Four chicken satay skewers ($6.50) startled me with their plumpness. Because of their size and deep grill marks, I feared they would be chewy. Instead, they were smoky and succulent thanks to a marinade of turmeric and curry powder, plus a coconut milk baste. I double-dipped the chicken in a peanut sauce whose sweetness was blunted by a cucumber-onion relish.
As for the classic crunchy spring rolls ($5), filled with a mix of carrots, cabbage and mini elephant ear mushrooms, it’s been a while since I sampled a roll so greaseless.
Though never a huge fan of the often soupy, wimpy noodle Thai classic pad Thai, Pandan’s version ($9.75) was all stewlike braggadocio. Its rice noodles weren’t overpowered by my choice of chicken, plus bean sprouts, scallions, tofu and eggs, all bound up in a slightly sour, tamarind-powered sauce.
The yellow curry with beef ($9.25) was a well-executed, hearty mix of meat, potatoes and onions in a coconut cream, turmeric-tinted sauce. But next time, I’ll venture toward the spicier curries to get the full benefit of how Pandan modulates serious Thai dragon chili-curry heat.
A sweet chili paste stoked a fiery edge to the pad prik pow ($9.25), which I ordered with shrimp. The seafood went well with the dish’s scallions, sweet onions, mushrooms, carrots and snow peas, all moistened by a well-balanced paste playing notes of sweet and peppery.
A definite Indian flair colored the puffed roti ($3-$4), whose texture marries puff-pastry crunchy with sopapilla chewy. The roti was doused in sweet milk, sugar and butter, giving it a baklava’s sweetness. My inner child came out as I dunked the triangular roti pieces in a bowl of vanilla ice cream.
The sweet simplicity of the roti dessert makes perfect sense when I learn that, on the side, Pook Thothong likes to turn out 100 cupcakes weekly, in flavors like orange creamsicle and piña colada, in addition to architectural wedding and specialty cakes.
True, the Thothongs may lack a fancy diploma from the Culinary Institute of America, but they can rightfully boast a Ph.D. in delivering their love of Thai food to a patron’s plate.