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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Tucson’s Bangkok showdown

    Ashlee Salamon
    Ashlee Salamon
    Ashlee Salamon

    Tucson has a surprising amount of culinary amenities, including Vietnamese, Afghan and Indonesian cuisines, but I had yet to find a good Thai restaurant. I was on a mission.

    After extensive research and word-of-mouth recommendations, I decided to try my luck at Vila Thai Cuisine and Char’s Thai — the cream of the crop, Tucsonans told me.

    To level the playing field, I ordered the same meal at each restaurant — Tom Kha Gai, Pad Thai and sticky rice with mango for dessert. The similarities ended there.

    Vila — located on University Boulevard on a quaint second-story terrace above American Apparel — let me down.

    Their Tom Kha Gai, a traditional Thai soup made with coconut milk, chili paste, tamarind, lemongrass and mushrooms, fell flat. Actually, it fell tart. The ratio of citrus to everything else was way too high, and the chicken was rubbery and dry. 

    Though I appreciated the one-through-five spiciness ratings available for every dish, my level-three soup was simply a slosh of lime juice with too many chili peels to sift through.

    This dish spawned a debate between my dining mate and me about what lackluster means to us, and how the term differs from “”mediocre””. We dubbed the dish mediocre.

    Fast-forward to our Char’s Thai Tom Kha Gai experience. ‘Complex’ does not begin to describe the deliciousness of this dish.

    It began with the presentation: We received our soup in a doughnut-shaped metal bowl with coals in the hole, which our server promptly lit when she arrived at our table. Our soup was like a glorious fiery ring beckoning us with its enticing aroma.

    This soup was lighter in color, and tasted more like coconut than Vila’s. The chili was a soft flavor that hit the back of the palate, allowing the flavors of lemongrass, mushroom, tamarind and chicken to appear.

    Vila: zero points. Char’s Thai: two — one for the awesome presentation and one for taste.

    Moving on to the Pad Thai. This dish traditionally contains rice noodles, tamarind, green onion, peanuts, chili and lime. It is usually an explosion of flavors which yield favorable results.

    Vila’s disappointed. We gauged their version of this dish to be a shaky lackluster, but only because our server was too nice to give it a flat “”horrible.””

    The noodles were cooked well, but despite the overwhelming smell of peanut, all I could taste was soy sauce and something vaguely fishy. I squeezed some lime onto the dish, but it really didn’t help much.

    Char’s Thai, however, was amazing. Not fussy or contrived, the mound of noodles on my plate made me happy, and each of the flavors was distinct and added in perfect amounts. The dish wasn’t served with lime because it wasn’t necessary; the Pad Thai tasted perfect on its own.

    I hoped Vila could fight its way back to mediocrity with its dessert — sticky rice and mango — but my expectations were apparently too high.

    Despite the very clear “”sticky rice with mango”” written in black and white on the menu, we were told we would be eating sticky rice with strawberries instead. Sure, whatever. They’re professionals, right?

    As it turned out, sticky rice with strawberries was just as bland as it sounded. There were some white and black sesame seeds scattered on the plate as a garnish, and the dish itself was tasteless, hardly worth calling a dessert.

    Pretty much, between the Pad Thai and sticky rice, Vila managed to ruin two perfectly good plain starches with a laundry list of flavors all looking to outshine each other.

    Char’s Thai’s sticky rice and mango — yes, mango — was (in stark contrast to Vila’s) outstanding. There was a pleasantly surprising salty tang to the sweet rice, and the entire thing was gone in 45 seconds. Unable to resist, we followed up the meal with two more desserts, fried banana and coconut ice cream. Wow. Eaten together, this is perhaps the greatest Thai combination ever.

    Vila did have one redeeming factor which Char’s Thai lacked — a lychee martini. Made with Vodka, lychee liquor and lychee juice, this drink went down smooth and distracted me from three plates better than Char’s Thai’s sweet and syrupy plum wine.

    Consensus? Char’s Thai. It’s located on Fifth Street and Rosemont Boulevard, but the food is worth the drive. Rent a car, bike or rickshaw — but get over there somehow. Tucson’s Thai food reputation depends on it.

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