Thai restaurants have become so numerous in the valley that they do, in many ways, face the same challenges confronting their Chinese and Italian brethren — and even the Middle Eastern ones for a while — primary of which is how to stand out in the crowd. Naga Thai has found a number of ways to do it.
First and foremost would be its menu, which sports a number of dishes not commonly found at local Thai restaurants, starting with the starters. Yes, the spring rolls and satays and edamame are there, but so are the Golden Cups ($7.50) and the Miang Khum ($8).
The latter is proclaimed on the menu as a “traditional Thai snack,” which made us wonder why we haven’t seen it elsewhere, although of course “traditional” is not only subjective but relative. At any rate, the menu further told us that Miang Khum translates to “eating many things in one bite,” which we found not only charming but intriguing. And for good reason: It arrived as a long platter topped with cups of fresh chopped ginger, red onion, lime, Thai chilies, peanuts, toasted coconut and dried shrimp, along with a bowl of crushed ice with baby spinach leaves arranged on top.
The idea is to take a spinach leaf and add from the seven ingredients to your taste, topping the whole thing with some of the light sweet/sour sauce and, indeed, popping it into your mouth as one bite. It was not only delicious — possessed of the right-from-the-garden freshness that characterizes Thai cuisine — but flexible and in a format that lent itself to do-overs. When, for example, I scorched my tongue on a piece of fresh Thai chili, I was cautious to bypass that little dish the next time around.
The Golden Cups were another novelty to us and another deliciously executed dish. In this case flaky little pastry cups had been filled with a mixture of seasoned chicken and vegetables including corn kernels, tiny peas and cilantro, again to be popped into the mouth as a whole.
From there we moved to the standards, which in execution were far from standard. When we ordered a cucumber salad ($3.50), for example, we expected the requisite little cup of marinated cucumber and onion, but instead were served a large plate of artfully waffle-cut carrots and cucumber in a nicely tangy sweet-and-sour dressing. It was not only freshness personified, but also refreshing.
Tom kah ($6/$11) is a ubiquitous soup and one of our favorites, and this was a stellar rendition, creamier than most, with the flavor of lemongrass far more pronounced than with most. Shrimp are $1 extra, which turned out to be quite a bargain, considering their number and quality.
Panang curry ($12) is another dish we order frequently and again, this one was better than most, creamy and satisfying in its coconut-milk richness with just a bit of heat, as we’d requested, and a profusion of brightly colored, crisp-tender broccoli, green beans and strips of red bell pepper. We asked for tofu (chicken, vegetables, pork, beef, shrimp and a seafood combo are other options, the latter four at an added charge) and the sauce was filled with lots of cubes of wavy-cut gently fried tofu, just crisped on the exterior. And the rice, which was brought on the side, had been shaped in a heart-shaped mold.
Naga Thai also offers a long list of stir-fries. Nearly all of them are marked vegan on the menu, although you can change that with any of the meats listed. We opted for the garlic and black pepper ($11) with beef ($1.50 extra) and were served a dish gently flavored with the namesake ingredients, plus mushrooms and chunks of tomato that complimented the beef. We chose brown rice with this one ($1 extra), and again it was served in a heart.
Service throughout was excellent, from the crisp wonton strips and sweet-and-sour sauce that were placed on our table as soon as we were seated to the carafes of water and cola we were brought so we could refill at will, and dishes and servers who appeared with regularity. The decor is soothing, with soft music, soft lighting, wood tones and funky silver beaded curtains screening the kitchen at the rear.
Yes, Naga Thai sets itself apart from the multitude of Thai restaurants in the valley, and it does it simply, with creativity, quality and attention to detail.
Las Vegas Review-Journal restaurant reviews are done anonymously at Review-Journal expense. Email Heidi Knapp Rinella at Hrinella@reviewjournal.com, or call 702-383-0474. Follow @HKRinella on Twitter.