Ithaca is home to a number of different Asian restaurants, ranging from the very Americanized China Buffet to small family run dives like Tamarind. Besides the range of quality, you also need to decide on whether you’re in the mood for Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai or otherwise. As might be inferred by one of my previous articles on pickling thai chilies, Thai food is easily one of my favorites for its rich curries, light and fresh spring rolls and amazing spice.
Ask anyone for a recommendation on where to eat good Thai food in Ithaca and you will most likely get one of two answers: Taste of Thai or Thai Basil. Both restaurants are down in the Commons and very popular, but which one has better food? I went down to find out.
Thai Basil was my first candidate. As I approached the humbly sized restaurant squeezed between two other storefronts, I admired the lavish gold artworks hung to the walls, including a giant jeweled elephant head. After a short conversation with the store owner, I discovered that they were all pieces shipped directly from her home in Thailand. The rest of the interior was clean and appeared to have been updated recently.
My compatriot Rohan ’21 and I stationed ourselves at a small table for two near the window. The table, having not been cleaned after its last visitors, created some confusion over whether we were new customers or not, but after that was resolved we were promptly offered menus.
I decided to go with a green Thai curry, prepared extra spicy, while Rohan went with a Massaman curry. After a short wait, our food came out piping hot with a pyramid of rice. Now, if you’re a fan of spice, you come to expect something that will bring a light sweat and maybe a tear or two when you order something extra spicy, but at Thai Basil this was not the case. In fact, the green curry I ordered came out so mild that I had to ask the waitress for extra chilies on the side. This request, to my pleasure, brought a range of spice enhancement options to our table, from dried chili flakes to Thai chilies marinating in an oil/vinegar mix. Besides the lack of heat, the curries — both Rohan’s and mine — seemed to have been made too fast, as the vegetables were still rather raw and crunchy, and the curries themselves were thin and tasted of milk.
That being said, Thai Basil had one of the most delicious, love-handle-inducing desserts I’ve had. Their Thai donuts come out slightly doughy and gooey on the inside, hot and flaky on the outside and oh-so-good when dipped in some sweetened condensed milk served on the side as a sort of glaze.
A couple weeks later when my parents were in town, we headed to Taste of Thai to satisfy our curry craving. While the bleak atmosphere and initial musty smell of B.O. that greets your nose doesn’t make it the most pleasant place to eat, Taste of Thai’s food is something to be talked about. To keep the comparison even, the meal we ate also included a Massaman and green curry, both ordered to be prepared extra spicy like before.
After a more lengthy wait, as the place was packed that Friday night, our food came out piping hot. A few minutes after digging in, I broke into a light sweat and noticed my face getting warmer. Thai heat is special in that way, as it doesn’t punch you in the mouth like the fresh peppers used in Mexican cuisine, but is more akin to the slow build of bodily heat found in Jamaican cuisine. This was one win for Taste of Thai. Additionally, the depth of flavor and robust curry in both dishes surprised and pleased us enormously. Instead of the milky, soupy Massaman at Thai Basil, here there were deep undertones of cinnamon, cardamom, fresh ginger and other rich spices that complemented the soft vegetables and tender tofu extremely well. The same could be said of the thick and rich green curry.
So, if I had to recommend one to you, Taste of Thai would win my vote by a landslide for its bolder flavors and spice competency.