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It's one of the great mysteries of local food culture. Why can't Little Rock or North Little Rock attract a real Thai restaurant? Especially considering that Northwest Arkansas boasts nearly 10. We like Bangkok Thai in the River Market, particularly the heavily garnished noodle soup, but it has a limited menu, and it's only open for lunch. A number of restaurants, mostly pan-Asian, offer some small selection of pad Thai or drunken noodles or green curry, but our experience with pan-Asian places, here and elsewhere, has been that, at their best, they do a variety of dishes competently and nothing really well. Otherwise, for mysterious reasons, Central Arkansas's only real Thai options are congregated in or near Jacksonville. On Main Street, there's Thai Taste (to which we're overdue for a visit) and, on John Harden Drive, AP's Seafood Buffet, where you have to ask for the Thai menu and almost plead with your server to get anything more exotic than pad Thai.
Now you can add Sherwood's Chang Thai and Asian Cuisine to the list. Situated in a mini-strip mall next to a Subway in Sherwood off Highway 107 not too far north of Kiehl, the small restaurant offers a full Thai menu, but, perhaps prudently, hedges its bets with a mostly standard issue buffet that includes a few Thai items. Skip that and head straight for the menu. Better yet, skip it and head straight for the “Chef's special” part of the menu and start off with the mieng kham ($4.50). The popular poor man's snack in Thailand is a pinch of fresh ginger, toasted coconut, roasted cashew, shallot, lime, dried shrimp and several tiny Thai chili slices covered in a tamarind coconut sauce and served atop a Betel nut leaf (similar in appearance to a large mint leaf). In just one of the five bite-sized morsels, we got a taste experience we can't recall ever experiencing. There's tartness (the lime), saltiness (the dried shrimp and cashews), a piquant burst of heat (the Thai chilis) and a candy-sweetness (the sauce) that would overwhelm if not for the fresh taste that lingers from the shallot, ginger and Betel nut leaf. It covers such a broad spectrum of flavor that it works well for a palate cleanser, a before, middle and after sort of dish.
Chang does other exotic fare that we haven't yet tried, like pia sam rod ($10.99, deep fried whole fish in a sweet and spicy sauce), stir-fried squid ($8.99) and the pan-fried flat bread and green curry dip roti ($4.50), which our server told us the kitchen was out of both times we tried to order it. And, for the less adventurous, all the standards. The egg wrap pad Thai ($8.99), served with chicken and tofu, is a heaping, tasty mound of the national dish of Thailand, served in a sort of omelet bowl that defies our understanding of egg strength. The pad kapraow ($6.99), which comes, as most entrees do, with either beef, chicken, pork or tofu, is a rice noodle dish with appealing notes of black and Thai pepper and garlic. We liked the green curry ($6.99), but could've done without a vegetable medley of green peas and crinkle-cut carrots that tasted like they came from the freezer.
Otherwise, Chang used fresh ingredients winningly. The beef larb ($6.99), a spicy mixture of minced beef fried with hot chilis and lime dressing served on romaine lettuce, was much improved by fresh scallions, cilantro and mint. And fresh cilantro and makrud lime leaves helped the tom yum gai ($6.99), a lemongrass soup that includes chicken, mushrooms, onions and a goodly dollop of chili paste.
Our servers, each visit, were incredibly friendly, if not terribly solicitous, which was occasionally an issue when we were chugging water to combat the spice. We had a few communication breakdowns, notably when we got the green curry instead of the green curry dip, but our hillbilly accent probably didn't help matters. Also, the kitchen hovered somewhere between not quick and slow on each visit. Both outings took us a little more than an hour and a half to get from downtown Little Rock and back during lunchtime.
We'll still be grumbling until a full blown Thai spot comes to our ‘hood. Until then, Chang'll do just fine. We can't wait to go back and dig deeper into the menu.
Chang Thai and Asian Cuisine
9830 Highway 107, Sherwood
Broaden your horizons. Don't miss the flavor parade that is the mieng kham appetizer.
11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday; 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday.
Credit cards, no alcohol.