Two words: Volcano Chicken.
Normally, a dish whose name is derived from geothermal eruptions should send diners scattering for shelter, but in Baan-Thai's case, you can go with the flow. Dig, if you will, a picture: A whole game hen is stuffed with mushrooms, minced onion and cilantro, coated with a sweet Thai barbecue sauce, then (tectonic rumble, please) deep fried. The grapefruit-sized hen, burnished to a deep mahogany, arrives banked against orange wedges on a platter dancing with a blue flame.
There's no denying Volcano Chicken's ceremonial splash. Even the waiter seems impressed. He lingers to watch you carve the first slice, which tastes fantastic--the barbecue sauce seals in the moistness and insulates the meat from the frying oil, so what arrives is sweet, tender and surprisingly light. Guaranteed, you'll pick the wee bones.
In this dish alone, Southwest Portland's Baan-Thai is something special.
But as the arresting marigold-and-grape paint job, saxophone-solo soundtrack and crowds of chattering PSU students will tell you, Baan-Thai isn't some haute enclave. It feels like a well-used hangout that has been serving up wholesome rice and noodle dishes to hungry, hungover college kids for decades. The glass jewel-box cases that house dozens of delicately arrayed ceramic figures have collected a convincing layer of dust. The lunch rush feels riotously routine.
But in reality, Baan-Thai is barely seven months old--it occupies a compact blue-and-white Victorian building most recently tenanted by a Pakistani tea house. The house is set back from the street and effaced by Broadway Coffee's bright storefront, but once inside, Baan-Thai's screaming yellow walls let you know you've found your hot dinner.
The appetizers, soups and salads that start off the menu represent a range of finger-lickin' fried goods (spring rolls, wonton, calamari), fresh seafood-and-vegetable pairings, and oft-loved standards (salad rolls, satay) that have been re-envisioned with a Baan-Thai insouciance and verve.
The satay ($6), though served with the expected peanut sauce, also comes with chewy grilled bread (and, even rarer, is available in tofu form). Tom kha, the famed coconut-milk based soup, blends the spicy-sweet broth with mushrooms, cilantro, chewy lemongrass, a few whole dried red chilies and a choice of protein (chicken or a springy fried tofu). All the vegetables have the bright color and bite of having been freshly steamed--especially nice are the brilliant, tart cherry tomatoes floating on top. A small tureen ($4) serves three comfortably, and the soup is so thick and saucelike it could almost be a meal unto itself. The plar kung ($9.50), a grilled prawn salad, is a gorgeous spread of mesclun greens, diced cucumbers, chopped scallions, mint and cilantro, tossed with a handful of crisp shrimp barely charred at the edges and dressed in a spicy, lime-scented vinaigrette. Similar versions of this salad are available with beef, mixed seafood and shellfish, or grilled squid (yum pla muk). Keep one on hand as a cooling contrast to the entrees.
A mild dish like pad se-ew (stir-fried noodles with slices of broccoli and carrot) is a welcome refuge from the textures and spicy flavors presented elsewhere in the menu. Although all dishes may be adjusted for spiciness, "mild" is plenty caliente for the average Portland palate (your forehead will break a faint sweat). Mild can verge on boring, however, and Baan-Thai errs on the safe side with some dishes. The pineapple curry, which mixes meat with what seemed like canned chunk pineapple, green bell pepper and peas, was soupy and flat despite the slight kick from the red curry sauce. Items like the garlic and black pepper stir-fry (choice of meat fried with steamed veggies) come across as competent, but steep at $8-$12. But fluffy heaps of perfectly prepared jasmine rice can right a lot of wrongs, and that Baan-Thai has in abundance.
A brilliant Baan-Thai experience comes from a careful walk through the ample menu, selecting unusual standouts and paying particular attention to the house specialties. These include crispy catfish stir-fried with basil and lemon leaf ($12), a trout salad with shredded mango and apple, a dried-shrimp and cashew mixture ($10), and that stunning Volcano Chicken. At $10, it's cheap for a culinary pageant, while its subtle flavor testifies to the restaurant's elegance and range.
If Baan-Thai is a student dive, we should all head back to school.
1924 SW Broadway, second floor, 224-5155. 11 am-10 pm Monday- Saturday.
$-$$ Inexpensive- Moderate.
Picks: volcano chicken, tofu satay,