Pretty in Pink

A colorful Main Street bistro offers mild Thai in a gentle setting.

By Lauren McCutcheon
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Oct. 19, 2005

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Chabaa Thai Bistro
4371 Main St., Manayunk 215.483.1979.
Cuisine: Thai
Prices: $5-$25
Hours: Mon., 5-9:30pm; Tues.-Thurs., 11am-2:30pm and 5-9:30pm; Fri.-Sat., 11am-2:30pm and 5-10pm; Sun., 11:30am-2:30pm and 5-9pm.
Smoking: No
Atmosphere: Colorful, wholesome, popular-the Reese Witherspoon of Thai restaurants.
Service: Nice. Very, very nice.
Food: Curries, noodles, soups and sticky rice-the mild side of Thai.

On a recent weeknight on Manayunk's Main Street, the only restaurant with a waiting list is Chabaa Thai Bistro. There's a chill in the air, but the BYOB's patrons fill sidewalk tables. It's getting late-after 9-but couples still mill about, waiting their turn, brown-bagged bottles in hand.

Part of the reason for this midweek busyness: Manayunk-like the rest of our rose-lit city-is celebrating National Breast Cancer Awareness month, and doing it on Wednesdays, when some neighborhood businesses donate some profits to the American Cancer Society.

It's a nice thing to do, and Chabaa does it very nicely indeed.

Pale pink fabric drapes ceiling beams both downstairs and up. Servers wear pink tops and pink linen palazzo pants. Hot pink cloth serves as a backdrop for statues of the Buddha. And best of all, Thai-born DJ V-7 spins ambient music from a pink-swagged corner facing the entrance.

The scene, which could easily seem forced or girlish, actually feels hip and-forgive me-nurturing. Like gentle yoga. Or an aromatherapy massage. Or chef/owner Moon Krapugthong, who greets customers so warmly, so genuinely, a person wouldn't dare complain about a crowd-induced longer-than-average food-delivery time.

Instead a person might fix their gaze on the festive paper lanterns hanging over the stairwell while eavesdropping on the conversation of the drunken couple seated next to them and drinking an entire bottle of Sauvignon Blanc before their soup arrives. After all, it's a pretty nice place to hang out-and the tom kah is worth the wait.

Tom kah is the milder cousin of tom yum. It's made with chicken broth, lime juice and salty nam pla (fermented fish sauce) melted into smooth white coconut milk. Morsels of tofu, chicken or shrimp-plus bell pepper bits, gingery galangal and button mushrooms-are all present, but the nectarlike milk itself is the soup's best asset. Rich, sweet, lactose-free and habit-forming, it is, at first serving, carefully ladled from its shared bowl-but inevitably ends up hosting subsequent visits from greedy soup spoons.

There are other interesting ways to start laid-back meals at Chabaa. There are salads of mint, cilantro, spring mix, bean sprouts, shrimp and chicken rolled in rice paper and dubbed "fresh spring rolls." There are nifty little Thai versions of the fish portion of fish and chips: tasty tanned nuggets of cod ground with red curry and lime leaves.

There's fried tofu, which here, as elsewhere, seems destined to exterior toughness and interior blandness-the dumb jock of vegetarian fare. There's barely grilled squid, which earns props for retaining a hint of fishiness and for appearing in recognizable bits, with only a shallow pool of sour sauce made with green chilies, vinegar and lime. These starters come with sweet-and-sour dip, a translucent coulis of ripe red chilies that resembles duck sauce with less cloy, more sour spice, and chopped peanuts.

All these apps are pretty decent. But that soup: That's what to order first.

What you should order last: mango sticky rice with coconut, homemade custard and sesame seeds. Or a wedge of sweet dumpling "pumpkin" squash stuffed with that same dense, warm custard.

Not that you shouldn't consume things in between. Try crazy noodles, a silly name for a stir-fry of thick ribbon-like rice pasta. The tangle is sticky, spicy, salty and sweet, mixed with a tumble of tricolor veggies, bean sprouts and shrimp. It's kind of like a spicier pad Thai. Except better.

Maybe skip the following house specials. Cilantro root and garlic sauce on peppery pork loin is alluringly fragrant, but the meat is dry. A seafood hot pot is absolutely lovely-mussels, scallops and shrimp layered with broccoli and yellow, green and red peppers-but the chili-seafood paste used to flavor the mix never quite reveals itself.

Tempura shrimp are decent, their jumbo bodies crispy outside and moist in, but their tangy wading pool of mango-pineapple sauce-which probably tasted divine in hot weather-now approaches sugary.

Go instead for the curries. Green curry has, as a base, coconut milk blended with kaffir lime leaves, cilantro and fresh, young chilies. This last ingredient makes the dish hotter than red curry, but no less balanced. Like most main courses, the curry swims with bright bell peppers, pale bamboo shoots and your choice of tofu, chicken, seafood, shrimp or beef.

The Panang curry sounds spiciest but isn't. It's actually tart and creamy, with a mixed chili and lime zest sauce streaking a puddle of coconut milk, a rich bath for brisket-tender slices of London broil topped with thick asparagus and garnished with an orchid.

Basil curry employs purple-stemmed Queen Siam basil instead of the smaller-leaved, harder-to-score dark Thai basil. The dish emits an aroma of fresh licorice, or a greener, less sinister anise. The flavor is somewhat exotic, but it's real easy to get used to.

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