Restaurant review: Bamboo Thai Kitchen

G.A. Benton
Som Tum, Tom Yum, Sticky Rice and Tamarind Duck

Some restaurants are hole-in-the-wall operations offering great food and little else. Some restaurants are fashionable destinations offering trendy cocktails and chef-finessed dishes. Some restaurants are “everyday” places offering solid cooking, decent beverages and efficient service in an often-bustling and upbeat setting.

Bamboo Thai Kitchen — it replaced Bamboo Cafe a year and a half ago in an international-restaurant-rich Bethel Road strip mall — lands comfortably in the third category.

Like its predecessor, Bamboo Thai Kitchen offers Vietnamese food and fare such as General Tso's chicken, in addition to Thai food. Because Bamboo Thai Kitchen's owner, Taree Ledford, is a native of Thailand, and because I wouldn't, say, order crab rangoon in a place that features authentic Chinese cuisine, I largely stuck with the restaurant's classic Thai dishes.

Ledford has largely stuck with the pleasant interior she received with the keys from the previous tenant. So expect a slew of decorative bamboo — in live sprigs on tables, on an amusing thatched-roof, cabana-like dining area and at a tiny bar. Playing off this tropical-island theme are colorful patterned cushions on chairs that accompany dark wooden tables.

For a value-heavy starter, go with a generous cup of Tom Yum — the piquant, lemongrass-scented soup — or the similar but richer (from coconut milk) Tom Kha soup. Both are aromatized by vegetables and a shot of fish sauce, and both are priced by a chosen protein ($4.50 for tender chicken; $5 for good shrimp). When ordered ?medium,” the chili component delivers an appreciable tingle.

Compatible beverages for such spicy fare are a Singha beer ($4), a glass of Chateau St. Michelle Riesling ($7) or a Thai iced coffee ($3) that's sweet as chocolate milk and served in a curved parfait glass.

For a shareable starter that could function as an entree, it's hard to beat a Thai salad such as Larb ($11). Rather than the usual ground chicken, this one features lots of chopped, warm breast meat. The standard bright dressing, starring sweetened lime juice tweaked by chili and fish sauce, is pretty much on target, as is the appealing crunch of (somewhat overly) toasted ground rice. Carrots, onions and a little lettuce accentuate the freshness.

Som Tum ($9) — the famed unripe papaya salad — offers similar flavors but is made without meat or toasted rice and with peanuts and tomatoes.

Pad Thai is so popular that many local non-Thai restaurants offer it; few places prepare it as well as the version presented here. In accordance with a sizable section of the menu, add-ons set the price ($12 for chicken, pork, veggies or tofu; $13 for beef or shrimp).

When I asked about going rogue and ordering it with chickenand shrimp, my smiling server paused a second, then said: “Why not?” The hefty resulting dish ($15) didn't skimp on the poultry or sweet, plump shrimp.

Bamboo Thai Kitchen does a good job with its Red Curry, too. Chili, fish sauce and lemongrass are smoothed out — but not weighed down — with coconut milk in a saucy composition that includes bamboo shoots, green beans, eggplant, green peppers and a protein (I went with the OK pork, $12).

For something less common, try the Tamarind Duck ($18). Under a colorful jumble of pineapple, carrots and onion are tender-yet-crunchy pieces of lightly battered meat. A puddle of sweet tamarind sauce, a pile of nice broccoli and a bowl of steamed rice complete the easy-to-like entree.

For a treat that's not overly sweet, try the Sticky Rice ($6 with bananas, $8 with mango). It's a delicious and glutinous hot-cereal-style dessert that's so comforting it might induce a nap — perhaps even one accompanied by dreams of peaceful times spent among sunny bamboo trees.

Bamboo Thai Kitchen

774 Bethel Rd., Northwest Side