Though I like Phat Thai rather more than does the Westword’s outgoing Laura Shunk (while taking to heart her point that key spicing is handled in too desultory a fashion by the kitchen, which thereby forces you to do the dirty work via tableside condiments), I definitely agree with her that Thai Monkey Club has a much more natural & confident handle on the balance between flavor elements that is the hallmark of Southeast Asian & particularly Thai cuisine.
This newish Baker District hole in the wall rates the heat of its dishes on a scale of 1 to 6; the Director & I, having relatively combustion-proof palates, went (via delivery) for 4s and 5s—which a) seemed pretty much the same & b) provided fair warning as to the permanent damage that might be done to tongue & stomach by 6.
So yes, this stuff is packing heat, in the form of little chili-pistols that spray your insides with pockmarks of pain & pleasure. But if mere cheap thrills were all it had to offer, I wouldn’t have been half so impressed; rather, homestyle savvy gave each dish its clear, bright due (& hue). That much was true of classic green papaya salad (pictured bottom, heat level 5), a refreshingly precise blend (once mixed together on the spot) of crunchy raw cabbage & salted peanuts; slivers of surprisingly ripe tomato & carrot; & julienned strands of the namesake ingredient that, neither woody nor slimy, evoked tart vegetable spaghetti. In this case, traditional fish-sauce-based dressing delivered the heat as well as the soothing sweet (typically palm sugar) & citrus sour (i.e. lime juice) to highlight the papaya.
The Director’s green curry with bamboo, basil, globe eggplant, snow peas, broccoli & pork (top left), though supposedly spicier than mine at heat level 5, was certainly a bit sweeter and creamier—but not thick or clunky; the medium is the message, after all, & what the curry transmitted rather than garbled was the integrity of the humble ingredients within—their nice, nearly uniform bite size; their crisp bite, period; their clean green freshness.
Still, it was my seafood red curry (top right) with more bamboo, basil & globe eggplant plus carrots, baby corn. shrimp, scallop & squid (&, okay, maybe krab?) that, while thoroughly & lastingly spicy in its medium-thick soupiness, was the edible equivalent of looking at the ocean in sunlight & seeing each wave glint in turn—the intense purity of flavor washed over you in intervals.
Given, then, how adept Thai Monkey Club is at exhilarating curries, I’m chomping at the bit to try their noodles next. But by the same token, I’m also tearing a bit at the missed opportunities of the straightforward menu: a lesser-known regional specialty or two would be a dreamy bone to throw at the likes of us chowhounds.