Jasmine Thai Restaurant
1145 S. Victoria Ave.
$5.00 – $18.00
Sometimes, being on one of the busiest streets in town isn’t the best way for a restaurant to be noticed. Despite the fact that Jasmine Thai Restaurant is catty-corner from the courthouse on Victoria, it seems that it’s all too easy to zoom past without seeing it. Asking others about it has so far only elicited “Where’s that?” for a response.
During a weekday lunch hour, we walked in and found a restaurant that came across as a well-protected secret. The interior is clean and contemporary, with red booths, dark and light woods, and stylized photos of food hanging on warm-colored walls. With windows only at the front, the place takes on a dim light as the booth seating stretches back, making for a soothing, tranquil space.
Pretty inviting for a lunch hour, but only a few people were there enjoying it. The sound of forks touching plates tinkled underneath the plucked strings of instrumental music. While not a scene that inspired much confidence in the food, enough people online were enthusiastic about the place to make chancing it worthwhile. We were immediately seated, had soup and beer and said, “Cheers” within minutes.
When it comes to starters, Thai classics are especially rewarding here. The tom kha soup rivals any that I’ve had locally. With lemongrass, red curry, the pungent ginger-cousin galangal, and slightly cooked mushroom slices simmered in a coconut-milk base, the soup is loaded with aggressive flavors that make for a stimulating harmony.
Chicken satay is also well executed. The yellow curry marinade makes for tender, juicy meat with a light earthy flavor. After peppering your mouth with the warming spices in the authentic peanut sauce, the accompanying ramekin of cucumber salad makes for an even better palate cleanser than a bottle of Chang lager.
Among the entrees, there’s an unusually restrained savoriness that defines many of the dishes here. When you take a bite, you’re left chewing contemplatively, struggling to pick out discrete flavors while happily dumbstruck by the mélange. If you’ve ever heard Alton Brown or some other brainy culinary personality mention umami (the “fifth taste”) and you didn’t know what they were talking about (it’s a food-geek synonym for savory), consider Jasmine Thai to be Exhibit A.
The crab fried rice, known as “Thai Favorite,” is a simple preparation
of white rice fried with pulled crab, egg and onion in a light sauce.
Kai kua, for instance, features a generous portion of rice noodles stir-fried with egg, sprouts, scallions, and topped with crushed peanut. The noodles carry a surprising depth of flavor that, again, is difficult to define. You wonder, is this oyster sauce I’m tasting? Or good house-prepared stock? That rich yet clean quality is the essence of umami. The noodles also have a luxurious, yielding texture that is great against the crunchy peanut and sprouts.
Crab fried rice, described as a “Thai favorite,” is a simple preparation of white rice fried with a generous helping of pulled crab, egg and onion, in “a light sauce.” There’s something odd about the way this one wins you over. At first you think it needs hot sauce or something else to bring some punch. But then the delicate saltiness from the crab melds with the egg and sugars in the onion, leaving an aftertaste that keeps you coming back for more.
Clay pot shrimp is a little less mystifying but no less satisfying. Shrimp, glass noodles, napa cabbage, ginger, mushrooms and bacon are baked in a clay pot with garlic pepper sauce. The result is a brothy dish featuring hearty flavors and extra-succulent shrimp as a delicious highlight.
The fact that this place is affordable makes it all the better. Carafes of Thai iced tea are $3. Dinner portions are around $10 (more for seafood and specials), and unless you come in famished you’ll probably take some home. And a lunch specials menu offers a variety of choices at $8 for a slightly smaller portion than dinner.
While service was great during a sleepy weekday lunch hour, coming here on a Saturday night revealed some gaps in service that could definitely test the patience of someone with low blood sugar. There didn’t appear to be a designated host or manager, so the servers were scrambling to keep existing tables happy before they could seat us. Then the need for patience continued throughout that meal.
But this is the kind of bang-for-your-buck restaurant where you put up with some of that because the food is affordable and good. With street-food-style dishes like fried rice, upscale dishes like crispy Chilean sea bass, and fusion-inspired plates like seafood spaghetti with chili garlic sauce, there’s a spread of options that’ll please just about anybody; and at the right price, too.