It was the eggplant that blew me away at Mix Zone Cafe, and, well, who knew?
I love the old-familiar Thai dishes like Pad Thai and Tom Kha — the noodles that are practically the national dish of Thailand and the lemongrass-and-chili-infused coconut-based soup, respectively. And I love neighborhood Thai restaurants that are as familiar and comfortable as an old shoe, where I can hunker down and find comfort in a plate of noodles and a bowl of spicy soup.
But the crispy eggplant ($6.50) at Mix Zone piqued my interest. Would this be bar food — eggplant cut into sticks and deep-fried? Or soggy slices sauteed in a skillet? Of course not, because those wouldn’t have blown me away. Instead, it was thinnish skin-on slices of little Japanese eggplants, coated in a tempuralike batter that puffed when cooked. With a plum dipping sauce on the side (almost a duck sauce), the slices brought to the table a mix of crispy (the coating) and yielding (the eggplant) textures and earthy (the eggplant), neutral (the coating) and sweet-and-sour (the sauce) flavors.
So I would’ve been pretty happy with Mix Zone Cafe right there, but there were more good things awaiting us. Mint-chicken pot stickers ($6.50) had just a spark of sprightly flavor wrapped up into dumplings that had been pan-fried gently so that they were crisp in some spots, not in others.
While innovation is all well and good, it had been a long time since I’d luxuriated in a Panang curry ($8.95), so I figured I was due. At Mix Zone, there’s a tofu option as well as the requisite beef, chicken, pork and shrimp (the latter $2 extra), and I was due for some of that as well. I wasn’t disappointed; the tofu had been cut into slices that were gently crisped so that they were just a little puffy. They rested in a bath of creamy, coconutty curry rife with slices of crisp carrots and red and green bell pepper.
And here’s what a lot of Thai restaurants do wrong: They don’t cook the chunks of meat (or tofu, in this case) in the sauce, but add it when you order, which means the chunks end up tasting like their plain old selves instead of taking on the complex flavors of the sauce, causing a rather odd dichotomy of flavor. That wasn’t the case here. The tofu in this dish was flavored through and through.
We also tried the Ga Pow ($7.95), minced pork (or beef if they had had it or chicken; shrimp was $2 extra) stir-fried in a homemade chili sauce with peppers and onion and mint. This one was less liquid than the Panang, but both worked very nicely spooned over the piles of long-grain rice we were served.
Like most Thai restaurants, Mix Zone offers a range of heat levels, which tend to be awfully dicey, because one man’s 1 is another man’s 10. We went with a 1 and 2, though, and found the 1 suitably mild, the 2 just spicy enough.
Service throughout was very good. Our waitress had blue hair and multiple piercings, so be forewarned if that sort of thing offends your delicate sensibilities, but note that she was much better than many of the servers we encounter these days.
The cafe itself is tiny, but pleasant, thanks to the bright colors and accents such as a double-barreled fountain near the front door. The music is gentle, the pace just quick enough without being rushed. Note that there’s no alcohol service, though our waitress pointed out that there was a 7-Eleven nearby so we could make a run if we thought they stocked our favorite wine. We didn’t.
They were out of fried bananas, too, so we had to pass on a dessert of fried bananas and sticky rice, but we feel sure the eggplant will be calling our names very soon.
And at these prices, we can even afford it.
Las Vegas Review-Journal reviews are done anonymously at Review-Journal expense. Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at 383-0474 or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.Review
Mix Zone Cafe, 2202 W. Charleston Blvd.; 388-0708
Pluses: Mix of favorites and offbeat dishes.
Minuses: They were out of a few things.