Panna Thai

Talking with a chef about food trends recently, he confirmed what I’ve been seeing: exponential growth toward the casual-but-upscale in restaurants across the board, whether they’re celebrity-chef-driven, chain links or mom-and-pop ethnics.

Panna Thai stands as further evidence. Add quietly efficient service, solid preparations of Thai favorites and enough less-familiar dishes to keep things interesting and, ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner.

Panna Thai is in a strip shopping center in southwest Las Vegas, one of the sections of the valley that seems to be maintaining a bustling growth rate despite the sluggish economy. The interior, though, enables Panna Thai to transcend its location, with wooden artifacts, soothing shades of brown and accents in gold, copper and red, which shouldn’t work together but do. It’s a world away from the first Thai restaurant I remember frequenting, which had more thatchy kitsch than a ’70s dinner-theater production of "Anna and the King of Siam."

The menu’s a world away, too. Yeah, the Pad Thai and the Pad See-Ew and the other familiar characters are there (as well as a number of dishes that we generally think of as more Chinese or Chinese-American than Thai, to make things a little more user-friendly), but so are the marinated duck rolled in a soft tortilla with tamarind sauce, and the spicy basil clams.

We figured we’d mix it up a bit, with some old favorites that helps us gauge a place and a couple of dishes we hadn’t tried before.

The Sa-Te ($7.95) — usually seen as satay in this country, but since Thais use a different alphabet, who are we to quibble? — was firmly in the former group, a staple at, we’d bet, every Thai restaurant in the United States. We chose beef (the other option was chicken) and it was thin, delicate and impossibly tender, served with a peanut sauce with layered flavors that separated it from the cloying crowd, and a cucumber salad with some spirit.

We were a little wary of the pineapple curry with pork ($8.75, same for tofu or chicken; $9.75 for beef; $11.75 for shrimp) because it would be easy to go crazy with the sweetness factor with a dish like this, but our fears were unfounded. The coconut-and-red-curry-based sauce had enough kick — ably assisted by the acidic austerity of the tomato chunks — to nicely offset the sweetness of the pineapple chunks that were in great profusion.

And garlic short ribs ($11.95), sections of pork ribs braised with garlic and black pepper until they were infused with flavor and meltingly tender.

Both entrees were accompanied by hot steamed rice, served in attractive silver-colored bowls.

The weakest link was the Tom Kar Soup, alternatively called Tom Kah Gai or similar variations in other places. This is the classic coconut-lemongrass soup filled with straw mushrooms. The broth itself actually was very good — rich, satisfying, right at the less-than-scorching heat level we’d requested and in a serving quite large enough for two or more — but it suffered from what I think of as too many options. That is, it could be ordered with either chicken ($5.95), which we had, or shrimp ($6.95), which almost dictates that those options aren’t cooked in the broth. And so it was that the chicken, instead of being infused with the coconut and lemongrass and galanga and red-chili that characterizes this soup, was bland. Tender, yes, but bland. We would expect a similar problem with the pineapple curry, but either the fact that pork is inherently more flavorful than chicken or that the dish contained more assertively flavored components saved it.

Service throughout was excellent, deft, smooth and extremely courteous. And we appreciated that our server offered us extra steamed rice to take with the leftovers.

While I note an increase in soothing, comfortable spots like Panna Thai, I’m not predicting the death of the hole-in-the-wall ethnic joint, although there do seem to be fewer of them around lately. Then again, when a place is as accomplished as Panna Thai and is as quiet as it was on the evening of our visit, I continue to fear for privately owned restaurants in general.

Maybe the growth of the neighborhood just hasn’t caught up yet. But let’s spread the word to other points, however distant, because this is one up-and-comer that deserves to keep coming.

Las Vegas Review-Journal restaurant reviews are done anonymously at Review-Journal expense. Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at 383-0474 or e-mail her at hrinella@ reviewjournal.com.

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