Pink Elephant Thai -
One of things that took me by surprise during my years in Boston was the high concentration of Thai expats in the city. I didn’t see a connection between Thailand and Boston. Southeast Asia was already far enough away from North America that I would have thought that people from Thailand would have preferred moving to somewhere on the West Coast like California over Boston, which represented an extra 6 hours of travel time by plane. Further, it would seem quite counterintuitive for people who were used to the tropical, warm weather of southeast Asia to prefer the rather frigid weather of a city in Massachusetts rather than the warmth of California.
My curiosity on the subject was strong enough that I actually asked a random Thai expat that I happened to have a casual conversation with while I was waiting for takeout at a Thai place. The first reason he gave me was that since there were so many universities and colleges in Boston, there were naturally a higher concentration of students from Thailand in Boston than other cities. I countered with the fact that there were also a high concentration of students from a whole host of other countries, and that college and grad students surely were not ones who would stay long enough to open up the plethora of authentic Thai restaurants that catered to Thai expats (they also do not seem to be the group that would have the most interest and motivation to become restaurant owners. I think the number of Harvard and MIT grads that aspire to be restaurant owners would be rather small). He agreed, and then offered up what he thought was the main reason there were so many people form Thailand in the city: the current King of Thailand was born in Boston. Af first I did not get the connection, but he explained that the King was both extremely popular and revered in Thailand. And because of this, Thai commoners who move to the United States would often choose Boston because of the King’s connection to the city. He said that other than the high concentration of Thai immigrants, there was also a disproportionally high number of Thai tourists that visit Boson.
The high concentration of Thai people in the city meant that the Thai restaurant scene in Boston is probably the best and most authentic Thai restaurant scene in all of North America. The Thai food that I had there was so good, so non-Americanized, and so authentic that I have not gone a week without having Thai food at least twice during the time that I was there.
Since I have only been to Thailand a handful of times, I do not claim to be any kind of an expert on Thai food. But I have eaten enough Thai meals in Boston to know they type of food that appeals Thai expats. Sadly, I have not found this type of food in any other city that I’ve spend a considerable amount of time in. Not in L.A./Southern California, not in Toronto, not in Taipei, and I also have yet to find it locally.
I honestly also wasn’t expecting to find it at Pink Elephant Thai when I visited it for lunch today. Actually, from the impression that I got from the restaurant during my countless drive-by’s and walk-by’s of the restaurant, I actually expected it to be a takeout/fast food joint. Especially after seeing this sign every time:
I know $10 is not cheap for a takeout lunch. But considering what $10 would buy me at Kirin a few doors down (two dim sum items), ten dollars looked like fast food prices.
The restaurant is actually a sit-down type restaurant. It wasn’t decorated with the normal Thai-culture-themed interior like most other Thai restaurants. It actually had a lounge-like interior. True to its name, it also had a lot of pink elements in its interior that felt like it was catering to a female clientele ( this observation came from my wife, so please don’t blame me for stereotyping or being sexist).
There were actually many more female diners than male diners when we were at the restaurant, so something at the restaurant must be bringing them in. My wife speculated that -apart from its pink interior- it was because women preferred dishes that had a sweeter flavour, and the dishes we got today at the restaurant tended to be predominantly sweet.
The sweetness started with the salad and appetizer course that came with the $10 lunch combo that both my wife and I ordered.
The salad consisted of a few leafs of lettuces, a julienne of this, and two juliennes of that. They were covered with an extremely sweet dressing that was about three times sweeter than either honey mustard or thousand island dressing.
The spring roll that was also on the plate was covered with a sweet syrup. At first, I thought that the syrup on the spring roll was not as sweet as the salad dressing. But then I remembered that I had eaten the salad right before the spring rolls. If I could taste the sweetness of the syrup right after tasting the super-sweet salad dressing, then the syrup must be even sweeter than the dressing.
The spring roll that the syrup covered was very typical looking. It had a crunchy and oily outer skin with a mix of vegetables on the inside. It tasted as typical as it looked, which I guess was what the restaurant expected that the diners expected in a spring roll (better safe than sorry, I guess).
The sweetness continued with our main dishes. My wife had the kra pao fried rice.
We’re used to having kra pao on white rice, so this kra pao fried rice was actually atypical. It certainly looked and smelled delicious. It had all the right Thai aromas that seemed to indicate that the fried rice would be full of basil, garlic, sour, and spicy flavours.
When my wife had her first bite, I could visually observe her being taken aback by the flavours she encountered. She immediately commented on how oddly sweet the fried rice was. She said that she definitely tasted all the other flavours she expected, but she was totally not expecting the sweetness. The sweetness also happened to be the most prominent flavour in the fried rice, and my wife found the sweetness a little too distracting and overbearing. Luckily, she had the spicy chili lime sauce that came with my son’s dish on hand. Once she poured the sauce on the fried rice, she covered up the sweetness. And as soon as the sweetness was covered up, my wife said that the dish became very enjoyable.
The pad prik khing (with beef) that I ordered also had predominantly sweet flavours.
The main ingredients of the dish were string beans, peppers, and beef. The crispiness of the string beans and peppers contrasted nicely with the tender strips of beef. The spiciness of the sauce would have been the perfect compliment if it came with a tanginess or a bit of garlicky flavours. But no…the spiciness had to be paired with a pronounced sweetness. The sweetness simply turned the potentially enjoyable elements of the dish into elements that were totally unmatched with the sweetness. I felt like I was having a beef, bell pepper, and string bean dessert.
The coconut flavoured rice was also no help in toning down the sweetness. It actually added to the illusion of the dish being a sweet dessert.
Continuing with the theme of sweetness -and veering away from Thai cuisine – was the beef short rib appetizer we ordered for our son.
The sweetness actually did not feel out of place with the short ribs. They tasted exactly like the L.A. style Galbi that is served at local Korean restaurants. I think the only Thai element in this dish was the sauce, and it was a very good sauce. As mentioned before, its addition to my wife’s fried rice was what redeemed the dish from its purgatory of sweetness.
My son enjoyed the short ribs. He ate every piece of it in a very short amount of time. I was only able to investigate the flavours of the short ribs by eating whatever meat was left around the bone, so I really can’t tell you if the meat was tender or moist or tough or dry. All I can tell you is that it had flavours of L.A. Galbi.
We also had an order of fish cakes, which was the only dish we had that was not sweet.
Without an overbearing sweetness to distract me, I was able to slowly savor the fish cakes. They were very enjoyable. They were as good as the ones served at my favorite Thai restaurants in Boston, maybe even better. They tasted fresh and totally different from the frozen tod mun that is sold at local Asian supermarkets. The skin was crispy and the innards were beautifully teeth-bouncing. They were as snappy to the bite as the snappiest hot dogs that money can buy.
A sweet, syrupy sauce was included with the dish. Even though I disliked the sweetness in my main dish, I actually liked the sweetness of the fish cakes when they were dipped in this sweet sauce. I liked it because I was used to Thai fish cakes being served with sweet sauce. It didn’t feel out of place like the pad prik khing and the kra pao, both of which are not usually sweet.
I can definitely see the potential in the dishes at Pink Elephant Thai. If they toned down or eliminated the sweetness, I think the remaining flavours of their dishes would be very similar to the flavours of the same dishes that are served at the Thai restaurants in Boston. But I don’t expect them to tone down the sweetness any time in the near future. If my wife’s theory is right, then the sweetness is bringing in the female clientele. And it’s doing a good job at it. The restaurant was full by the time we were done with our meals, and there were even a few groups waiting…comprised entirely of female diners.