In a few decades of experience, the suggestion of local Thai food hasn't often elicited unfiltered enthusiasm. When someone among a group of friends has suggested it for dinner, the responses have tended to be affirmative but not terribly excited.
It's not that Thai food is boring or bad—to the contrary, even. And we have many good options in Durham (Bangkok 54, Twisted Noodle, and Thai Cafe) and Raleigh (Thaiphoon, in spite of the bad pun, is solid). Anecdotally, though, it seems that people choose their regular spot based on geographic convenience, not gastronomic preference. They all run together.
Or so I thought. In recent weeks, I've discovered two Thai restaurants in Durham—one only two months old, another so old I feel like I need to turn in my Northern Durham High School yearbook in shame—that distinguish themselves in several ways. They both serve unusually memorable versions of the standards, your curries and your pad Thais, and traditional dishes you rarely see in these Southern parts. And they offer their own creations, too, showcasing surprisingly creative kitchens.
Thai Spoon opened on Valentine's Day in Cross Creek Shopping Center, high in the reaches of North Durham. Head chef Phattharasaphon Lynch, a former employee at the standby Thai Cafe, succeeds with a menu of intriguing choices for diners who want to move beyond basic curries and noodles.
That said, Thai Spoon also handles the classics beautifully. The steamed chicken dumplings (also available fried) are worth the drive alone. The wrap is light and springy, while the basil-flavored chicken inside leaves a satisfying heat that lingers after you're finished. Tiny bits of carrots add a pleasant, unexpected crunch.
Among the entrées, the crispy-tender Basil Duck and the beautiful spicy larb salmon stand out. Resting on a bed of Romaine and radishes, the grilled salmon filet lurks beneath a thatch of thinly sliced red onions, made especially bright by a lime-based marinade. Those onions nestle among a generous toss of chopped spring onions. Somehow, all those onions don't overpower the dish. Rather, they play on the same team as the chili spices to create that satisfying burn.
Here's a tip I learned during several visits: If you can take it, order everything medium hot. This is the rare restaurant that gives you "hot" when you ask for it, and the "medium" designation helps maintain the harmony of flavors.
In the end, that may be what puts Thai Spoon above its peers: Whether you're trying a familiar massaman, panang, green, or yellow curry, pad Thai, or one of the restaurant's own creations, such as the delicious spicy fried rice tom yum seafood, the bright, familiar flavors blend in a way that makes you feel like you're rediscovering the pleasure of Thai cuisine. It's so good, you may start to get adventurous about following the menu's Thai detours—go with that instinct.