In a Thai restaurant whose name translates to "food," you might expect a generic menu on par with that of a small-town eatery with the word "diner" painted in the window.
But in the case of Arharn Thai, just off Powers Boulevard, you'd be grievously mistaken. Owner and Bangkok native Doungsamorn "Pong" Peanvanvanich proves that when your plates abound with bright, crisp vegetables, floral, pore-opening spices, and generous strips of meat, you don't need a flashy name. "Food" will do. Friendly, quick servers, two pleasant water fountains, and bright orange and mossy green walls convey the rest.
In a late March phone interview, Pong told me her goal was to introduce people to "how Thai food should taste," and promised authentic versions of several favorite Thai dishes unavailable elsewhere in town. Dishes like pad Thai ho kai ($7.90): the pad Thai you're familiar with — rice noodles, ground peanuts, green onions, bean sprouts, chicken or shrimp — wrapped entirely in a thin fried-egg purse, conveniently sliced on top for the plundering.
Sure, many local pad Thai versions feature chunks of fried egg, so aside from Pong's fine spicing and saucing of the noodles, only her presentation stands as unique. But on Powers, that's saying something.
Also new in town, at least to my knowledge, is the tod mun appetizer of tasty chicken nugget-textured fish-meat cakes infused with kaffir lime leaves and curry ($4 for five) and served with a sweet, clear dipping sauce. And the outstanding choo chee pla entrée ($7.90), comprised of flaky, deep-fried tilapia garnished with straight coconut milk atop a rich Panang curry blend of basil, red bell peppers and kaffir lime leaves. Order it Thai hot — Arharn consistently hit our temperature requests — and you'll be retreating to your coconut water, guava juice or Thai iced tea (each $2). We tried all three, including a more mature Thai iced tea version with lemon juice instead of milk, where the earthy, cane flavor of the tea isn't entirely drowned in sugar.
On a second visit, Thai egg rolls ($3.25 for two) and the shrimp cocoon ($4 for three tails) started us off. The former packs mushrooms and minced chicken with cabbage and bean thread noodles (vermicelli), to much delight. For the latter, Arharn elegantly wraps egg noodles all around the shrimp prior to frying, producing a wispy jacket of crunch, great with the sweet-and-sour dipping sauce.
For salads, we tested our go-for dish, the green papaya salad ($6), and Pong's rendition of a chicken larb salad ($6.50). With three shrimp included in the price, the tomato- and peanut-dotted papaya salad brought the perfect amount of fish flavor to the spicy chili sauce, quickly becoming our favorite in town. With incredible bursts of lime and mint, the piquant, saucy larb also won our affections; every visit should begin with one of these dishes.
If you love ginger, order the pad khing ($6.90), which boldly brings nearly raw ginger strands to a veggie mix with a black bean sauce — so good. The black soy noodle pad se ew ($6.60), with ample broccoli, is also worth a taste. At dessert, Arharn fails to best a few other homemade coconut ice creams ($2) in town, but nails the mango and sticky rice standard ($4).
On the whole, the place shines with fair prices and delicious food. Undoubtedly, the east side just got richer.