Bethel Road's Bamboo is a solid destination for Thai fare.
Many restaurants serving Asian food offer cuisines from more than one nation—combinations of Chinese and Korean, Vietnamese and Thai and sometimes all of the above are common. This mixing of cuisines is often an indication that the food is below average. Bamboo Thai Kitchen, a small restaurant in Olentangy Square Shopping Center, is an exception. With Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese and even a couple of Korean dishes on the menu, it's a real mishmash. But most of what's offered is better than most.
With laminate wood flooring, dark-stained pine tables and colorful photos of tempting dishes on the walls, Bamboo is a touch nicer than most strip-mall restaurants. On my visits, service was invariably friendly and prompt. A modest selection of beer and wine is available, including Singha, a Thai pale lager that goes well with much of the food.
Bamboo Thai Kitchen (formerly Bamboo Café) is owned and run by a group of friends who hail from Thailand (except one of the chefs, who is from Laos.) Not surprisingly, the best things here are Thai. A good place to start is the shredded green papaya salad called som tum ($9). It comes with slivers of fiery bird chilies, whole peanuts, bits of tomato and shredded carrots in a sweetened lime and fish sauce dressing. The version here is made to order, crisp and refreshing. Tiger Cry or suea rong hai($12) is another delicious salad, this one featuring a heap of grilled flank steak slices cooked about medium, tossed with seasoned rice powder, red onion, basil and cilantro in a hot and sour dressing.
Coconut milk-based curries are a big part of Thai cooking, flavored with various mixtures of chilies, garlic and other fragrant ingredients. The menu offers a choice of red, green, yellow, Panang and massaman curries—they are all different, but each pungently flavorful. (Fair warning: When you ask for spicy here you get Bangkok spicy, not Columbus spicy.)
Curries come with slightly different sets of vegetables. Massaman, one of my favorite dishes and one of the mildest, features chicken, potatoes and carrots in a rich sauce, while red and green curries come with chunks of eggplant, green beans, slivers of bamboo shoots and green bell peppers. The menu invites you to select among duck, chicken, pork, shrimp, tofu, beef and a seafood combo of shrimp, mussels, scallops and squid. I can report that red curry with shrimp is a powerful, tasty dish, in part because the kitchen uses large, very fresh-tasting shrimp. Curries range from $9–$18.
I sometimes wonder why pad thai is so popular among Central Ohio diners. At so many places the dish is a dreary assemblage of gummy rice noodles and mushy vegetables, tossed in a sweet sauce. At its best, a pad thai's noodles should be chewy, not gummy, and are enhanced with egg, crunchy bean sprouts, carrots and scallions, the whole made lively with lime juice, salty fish sauce, chilies, ginger and crushed peanuts on top. Done this way the dish can sing, and Bamboo Thai Kitchen's pad thai is a real crooner ($9–$18, depending on the protein ordered).
The menu also offers two mainstays of Vietnamese cooking worth ordering—pho with chicken, beef or seafood ($10–$13) and bun, a rice vermicelli bowl served with veggies, peanuts and a sweet vinegar sauce ($10 with pork, $11 with shrimp). Both preparations are above average and, like all the food here, a bargain—one lunch serving of bun came with six large shrimp in a huge bowl of the noodles, carrots and herbs.