In the '90s, Thai food still seemed exotic and unfamiliar. Since then, it has become a common part of the American culinary lexicon. Darla's Thai Pan is a perfect illustration. It isn't fancy or formal. It's the kind of place where locals pick up familiar Americanized Thai takeout.
On one of the recent sweltering evenings, we decided to keep our kitchen cool and go out for some hot, spicy Thai cuisine.
Following the utilitarian style of typical Asian strip mall restaurants, Darla's Thai Pan's interior is a little bland but functional and comfortable, and the service was exceptional. Friendly and welcoming, our host ran the dining room as if it were an extended part of her home, in the best way. She made witty banter, had an expert understanding of the menu, and seemed genuinely interested in our preferences and satisfaction with the meal.
We started with chicken satay ($6.99) and deep fried tofu ($3.99). The satay was quite good. Tender, thinly sliced chicken was skewered and grilled and served with a delectable peanut sauce. Our kids love the fun and familiar appetizer, so we order it wherever it's available. Darla's version was generous with comparably hearty slices of meat and a nice smoky, grilled aroma. The fried tofu is another of our children's favorite. But we particularly like Darla's sweet vinegar-based dipping sauce with loads of crushed peanuts and fresh cilantro.
For dinner we opted for chicken pad Thai ($9.99), a dish that most every Thai restaurant serves but treats with some unique twists, as well as the house specialty chiang mai hidden fried rice with chicken ($9.99).
The pad Thai was not our favorite. The sauce seemed a little too heavy and bland, lacking the citrusy sweetness we love about pad Thai. The noodles were good, but overall it could have benefited from more of the accompanying green onion, bean sprouts, and crushed peanut. It wasn't bad, but it also didn't stand out.
Hidden under a savory omelet, the chiang mai fried rice benefits from a great presentation topped with bright green cilantro, fried garlic, and chilies. Rice and tomatoes with white and green onion slices are stir-fried with stock, oil, and seasonings. Overall I liked the entree, but my dining companion was less enthused. It was rather heavy, and we found ourselves wishing for less oil and more depth of flavor.
Lunch was extremely fast and friendly. Lunch specials include an egg roll and a similarly generous entree portion. The prices are not the cheapest, but most will leave with leftovers.
We kept it simple with chicken fried rice ($8.99), as well as pad ped with chicken ($7.99) and gang masaman ($10.99). The fried rice featured big, tender pieces of chicken with fresh vegetables and a light sauce. With bamboo shoots, bell peppers, onions, and mushrooms in a smoky sweet brown sauce, pad ped was reminiscent of Mongolian beef with chicken as a substitute. Both entrees were just OK.
Darla's gang masaman, or yellow curry, was the best of the lunch items with hearty chunks of chicken and big pieces of potato along with onions and peanuts in a heavily spiced coconut milk sauce redolent of turmeric, cinnamon, and star anise.
Darla's Thai Pan may suffer from the weight of comparison to some of the truly excellent pan-Asian restaurants in northwest Ohio. With so many dining establishments, Toledo isn't an easy market for any cuisine, especially Asian. Our food was good and our service was great. The portions were generous and they arrived quickly. There were no surprises.
Usually that could be a compliment. But, as Thai food has become typical, I find that I relish a culinary surprise when it comes to Asian cuisine. Far from the stereotypically tepid midwestern palate, Toledoans have come to savor exotic flavors.
DARLA'S THAI PAN
Rating: * * *
Address: 4011 Secor Rd. #C.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Friday, noon to 9 p.m. Saturday. Reservations are accepted.
Wheelchair access: Yes.
Average price: $$.
Credit cards: MC, V.
Web site: http://members.toast.net/darlasthaipan/.
Ratings: * * * * * Outstanding; * * * * Very Good; * * * Good; * * Fair; * Poor.
Contact Bill of Fare at: firstname.lastname@example.org