Powerful Appetite

A Passionate Venue for Thai Food

Thai Passion

620 Congress, 472-1244
Lunch: Mon-Fri, 11am-2:30pm. Dinner: Sun-Thu, 5-9:30pm, Fri & Sat 5-10pm.

photograph by John Anderson

When it comes to Thai fare, food lovers have lots to be passionate about. One of the richest cuisines in the world, Thai cooking employs dozens of tantalizing herbs and spices, layering dishes with a mosaic of complementary flavors and perfumes. Although much of Thailand's culinary tradition is linked historically to China, Thai chefs have developed an entirely independent and equally complex cuisine that relies to a great extent on a number of the country's natural resources. Thai chefs display a devotion to fish that their Chinese counterparts lack. (The country boasts miles of coastline.) And rice and rice-based noodles are more prominent as well, as Thailand is one of the world's largest producers and exporters of rice, with up to four harvests occurring each year. Instead of incorporating the soy and oyster sauces utilized so readily in Chinese cookery, Thai cooks favor nam pla, an aromatic fish sauce. And unlike the Chinese, Thais also eat a wide variety of cool, crisp salads, many of them intriguing blends of cooked meats and fragrant herbs such as mint or basil. In fact, one of the most impressive characteristics of Thai cuisine is the expertise with which contrasting flavors, from the fire of chiles to palate-soothing herbs such as lemongrass or lime leaf, are united.

Austin is fortunate to have a number of Thai eateries, and the newest arrival on the scene, the aptly-named Thai Passion in the heart of downtown, indeed inspires affection. The restaurant's interior is airy and bright, its stone walls accented by waist-high partitions in primary colors topped by brass railings wrapped intermittently with nautical-inspired rope trim. Tables are set with fresh flowers, and several oversized, contemporary bas-relief in faux plaster and brick portray Thai deities.

Those seduced by the country's panoply of flavors will find the restaurant's menu, featuring all the expected favorites as well as several imaginative specialties, equally provocative. The standard spring rolls, pou-peer-sod ($3.25), proved to be exemplary in both taste and texture, the pliable rice paper wraps bulging with vermicelli, dense shrimp, a bouquet of crunchy crudités, and a healthy dose of fresh cilantro. The kitchen slipped ever so slightly, though, when it came to the Tod Mun ($3.95), a subtly spicy, deep-fried fish cake. Although long on flavor -- an interesting combination of flaked fish, green bean bits, and red curry, the cakes spent too much time in the frying pan, resulting in a slightly burnt aftertaste.

Moving to the soup department, a cup of Tom Yum with shrimp ($2.75) illustrated the kitchen's talent with lemongrass. The steaming broth afloat with herbs and vegetables was bold and pleasingly pungent, its disparate flavors brought together harmoniously. The flavors in the cup of Tom Kha ($2.75), a richer concoction, were tasty, if less refined. Hints of tangy lemongrass and cooling coconut milk were discernible, although the dominating fire of Thai chiles threatened to overwhelm the preparation.

All of the entrées I sampled at Thai Passion, from the rather ordinary Thai chicken lemongrass grill ($10.95) to the house special Chu-Chee Fish ($12.95), were received with pleasure. Thai Passion's portions are plentiful, and while a single dinner entrée provides enough food for two, the restaurant's wealth of tempting offerings makes it difficult to restrict yourself. Besides, Thai Passion's obliging wait staff will gladly box up any leftovers. In fact, following my visits they even added additional scoops of steamed Jasmine rice for a complete, repeat performance at home.

Lovers of basil will appreciate the Pud Ped Basil, a spicy stir-fry ($8.95 with chicken, beef, or tofu; $9.95 with shrimp). While other strong flavors, such as onion, bell pepper, and mushroom are present in the dish, basil definitely grabs the spotlight. Dozens of dark green flecks, whole leaves of the piquant herb, cover the platter, the entire melange brought together by a dark, glaze-like sauce. The house special Larb ($9.95), a classic Thai dish of ground meat and soft rice kernels mixed with onion, Thai dried pepper, and lime, is another winner. Although a generous helping of beef, the larb goes down like a light dish due in part to the refreshing presence of lime and the potent kick provided by the peppers.

Palates in search of more straightforward flavors will be pleased with the chicken lemongrass. Slices of moist, grilled chicken breast come heaped atop a copious bed of shredded cabbage and are slathered with a creamy, amber-hued peanut sauce. The sauce is of the stick-to-your-ribs variety -- a Thai take on simple comfort food. Prefer the exotic? Take my word for it that the ole' familiar catfish has never tasted as good as it does once transformed into Thai Passion's special Chu Chee Fish. The earthy fish filet, cooked until just flaky, makes perfect sense with a multi-dimensional sauce of yellow curry tamed by coconut milk. Beyond the spice factor, the catfish is further elevated from the ordinary by the generous addition of fresh basil and astringent lime leaves. Bamboo shoots, mushrooms, and bell pepper add the final touches to the fish.

With a menu boasting more than 45 different dinner selections, it's difficult to cover all the bases at Thai Passion, even in several repeat visits. But from my experience, doing so is a mission well worth undertaking. Thai Passion has mastered the art of pulling at the appetite's heartstrings, turning out Thai food provocative enough to lure you back again and again.

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