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Strengthening the Thai 

Authentic really is the word for the Thai food at SUKHO THAI, where chiles, lime juice or fish sauce can make all the difference.

An imaginative observer could discern numerous similarities between Bangkok and New Orleans. Add 8,000 stalls to the French Market and swap out the clementines for lychees, and you've got the Chatuchak Market. Muay Thai boxing there and the clumsy, mid-bender brawls here seem to adhere to similar rules -- and they're equally entertaining to bet on. And when you encounter a Bangkok vendor cleaving durian with a hatchet, the creamy textured fruit's controversial smell is not unlike the stench of Bourbon Street as Mardi Gras comes to a close.

But the similarities cease in the hunt for food. In Bangkok, the greatest Thai flavors emerge from simmering vessels on street corners, from iron woks balanced over coal fires in alleyways and from hardwood mortars in cramped market stalls. There are restaurants, but eating in them is like ordering a Lucky Dog at Galatoire's; it wouldn't feel right even if they indulged you. In contrast, the best Thai food in downtown New Orleans currently emerges from the kitchen at Sukho Thai, a corner restaurant with local art on the walls, Beck in the CD changer and a mostly non-Asian staff clad all in black. It's the sort of place you'd never trust in Bangkok.

The word "authentic" has been so overused pertaining to food that its meaning is as whitewashed in the American vocabulary as "hero" and "tragic." That said, you can really taste Thailand at Sukho Thai. The Saucy Noodles emulate the honest one-bowl meals available for a few coins nearly every couple feet in Bangkok. Thin egg noodles, spongy fish balls, minced pork, bean sprouts, fried garlic and peanuts all drifting in a lightly spicy chicken broth compose a moving symphony of textures and flavors.

Every Sukho Thai dish may be ordered mild, medium, hot or Thai hot. One glacial January evening, my sister ordered her Hot Basil with ground pork Thai hot; it was delicious, but she had to tear off her wool sweater to tolerate it. This isn't always how it goes down in Thailand, where the fragile Western tourist palate has convinced many cooks never to serve Westerners -- even those who beg -- true Thai hot cooking.

Besides the optional chiles, much of the food is awash in lime juice and salt-funky fish sauce; it contains payloads of herbs, lime leaf, ginger and lemon grass. These seasonings and garnishes may seem tossed into dishes with abandon (a hallmark of Thai cooking), but as with a Rothko painting, there's also tremendous evidence of forethought here. This extends to freshly made beverages, such as the almost chewy honey-ginger tea and a cooling honey limeade.

The dessert selection is another overachiever. Slippery rice flour dumplings filled with sugary lotus paste bob in cups of ginger broth, and barely sweetened coconut custard tastes as though it were poured in its gelatinized state straight from the shell.

While a few starters rev up the appetite -- like springy shrimp and fish cakes, and a rich, red chile-stained coconut chicken soup -- others don't. Fried vegetable rolls, skewered chicken with coconutty sate sauce, flat (in shape and flavor) yam fritters and iceberg lettuce salads are merely serviceable considering the main courses to come.

It wouldn't be crazy to progress directly to the whole fish dishes, for example. Lime steamed flounder, its clean, white flesh fragrant with lemon grass and anise-scented basil, is brushed with a piquant chile-garlic sauce. In an equally enchanting preparation, the flounder is split open and deep-fried without head and tail; its porous batter sponges up a sweet-tart-salty-hot tamarind chile sauce, enlivening every bite.

Among the 70-plus menu items are nine curries. I stand behind the coconut-based panang beef curry, whose explosive spiciness and gritty texture suggest that chiles, herbs and spices are ground into pastes on the premises. In the kaffir lime curry, which is mellower and drier, tender meats (chicken, beef or pork) and green beans come overlaid with shredded lime leaves and an adhesive red curry paste.

Drunken Noodles are also spectacular: wide, gummy rice noodles stir-fried to a deep, soy-salty brown with enough Thai basil to freshen your breath for a week.

It's impossible to decipher the lengthy menu in a way that predicts which dishes will deliver the maximum thrill. Basil scallops sounded lovely but weren't: rubbery scallops in a clear, insipid sauce with very little basil. Pad Thai noodles enfolded in a wimpy omelette stuck to themselves fast as magnets. Conversely, a larb-like dish involving minced duck, toasted rice and mint tasted far more exotic than anticipated.

Best to go with a group and eat in the round, as is already the custom here. Even when there's a wait the staff accommodates requests, including those for mild food, ice buckets, shoving tables together and impromptu performances. One Saturday, three members of Running With Scissors, outfitted as the Andrews Sisters, treated the packed restaurant to their flirtatious rendition of "Strip Polka."

Still a seedling, Sukho Thai has tapped into some major Faubourg Marigny cravings -- cravings for Thai food, for a BYOSingha policy and for a restaurant that's as faithful to the ideals of authenticity as the neighborhood itself.

click to enlarge Where to start? The menu at SUKHO THAI is so - extensive it's a challenge to predict which dishes - will be the best bets. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Where to start? The menu at SUKHO THAI is so extensive it's a challenge to predict which dishes will be the best bets.
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