Hidden Gem: Westgate Thai

Beth Stallings, Columbus Crave

If you're anything like me, you have a restaurant checklist-eateries you want to try, new restaurants you've read about, hidden gems recommended by a friend. This week, I finally made it to a spot that's been on my list for some time-Westgate Thai.

Despite living only a few miles away, until Sunday I had never stopped in. Instead of wallowing in that fact-because, as expected, the food is exceptional-I decided to make up for lost time. So I stopped in a few times this week, and you better believe I'll be heading back again soon for authentic, unadulterated Thai flavors.

Run by a husband and wife duo, Westgate Thai has hole-in-the-wall charm. Walk into the Westgate Import Market (itself an attraction-so leave yourself time to browse the shelves), turn right and you'll find a modest collection of tables, chairs and a cash register. Grab a seat, and the gruff co-owner will take your order and make small talk while you wait. He'll also ask for your heat level on a scale from one to 12. Anything over five is pretty spicy, he'll warn, and he's not kidding. I ordered my Ginger Lover stir fry at a three (I'm normally a medium spice level diner), and my lips continued to tingle long after I'd finished my meal.

After two brief visits, here are my two favorite dishes: Khao Kaphrao Khai Dao-a mix of veggies and meat (I went for pork) tossed in a seductive combination of Thai basil and garlic, with a ginger-like bite. It's topped with a runny fried egg that adds the right amount of creamy richness when broken into the dish. Pork, veggies, egg and rice in one bite was bliss.

And then Pad Phrik Khing-green beans and a choice of meat tossed in a sort of red curry without coconut milk, so it's more stir fry than soupy. It's got a strong red chili heat and aromatics, coupled with garlic and lemongrass.

Also tried was the Ginger Lover with strips of meat (went with pork again on this one) and stir-fried vegetables in a spicy, heavily ginger sauce, and Tom Yum soup that's hands down the best I've had in town. It rides that sweet and sour line perfectly and is packed with tender, meaty mushrooms.

You also can't beat the prices, with most dishes clocking in around $6 to $9. It's a great spot to go with a small group of friends who are OK with sharing.