With the proliferation of websites that bring restaurant reviews into the sphere of social networking (Yelp! Chowhound! Urban Spoon! Amuse-Bouche! food blogs everywhere!), bougies and trolls alike are mere keystrokes away becoming the next great food critic. Unadulterated praise is boring, and we at Blog will be the first to say that it’s fun to be snarky when snark is due. So a restaurant named Pakarang Exquisite Thai seems almost to be a challenge, a dare with two possible outcomes: either a truly exquisite meal or the easiest prey imaginable. (Full disclosure: it’s very easy prey.) Investigation was due.
From its post down on South Main, Pakarang attracts lots of people in suits. It’s got a similarly corporate-looking dining room: sprawling, with nondescript furniture, a vast unmanned bar, and strange aquarium-like wall decorations. In these ways, it’s the polar opposite of Sawaddee, the Thai place on the other side of College Hill, whose dining room is roughly the size of an Escalade. What they have in common is that they both fill up at lunchtime — all that space serves Pakarang well. Service is conducive to business lunches: attentive and quick but not all that personable, the waitstaff make it easy to chow down, go over the latest numbers, and GTFO (to your cubicle… or your 1:00 class).The menu is sprawling, too: a page and a half are dedicated to appetizers, soups, and salads; main courses take up three more pages, and that doesn’t include the curry and noodle offerings. Most of the staples are included (though there is a glaring and offensive lack of dirty noodles) as well as plenty of other things to explore. You won’t go hungry.
But where it delivers on selection, it skimps on quality. Yellow curry was nicely spicy, but the sauce was otherwise pretty lackluster, as though curry powder had been stirred into some coconut milk. Way worse, the chunks of pineapple were obviously straight out of a can; even in a hot curry, they had the strange softness and syrupy sweetness of canned fruit. Not what I want in my lunch. Fried rice was great, but that’s mostly because, let’s be real, how could fried rice not be great? Those veggies, too, tasted like they came from a freezer bag. There’s a glimmer of hope in the tom-yum soup, which is spicy and sour and savory in all the right ways, but the add-ins — mushrooms and shrimp — were kinda limp and waterlogged. So, while there are some good baseline spices going on in most dishes, they miss the mark as far as Thai food (particularly exquisite Thai food) is concerned. Traditionally, there should be a strong emphasis on nuanced flavors and light preparation, but it’s the opposite here, with dumbed-down sauces and overwrought prep.
That said, lunch keeps its appeal — especially for the suits — with prices that are reasonably proportionate to quality, and especially to portions (which are quite generous). Chicken curries are $7.50; the most expensive entrée, the SEAFOOD VOLCANO, is $9.50, and that’s for shrimp, scallops, mussels and squid, plus a shitload of veggies. Maybe not market fresh, but hey. Dinner isn’t as fair, with some dishes nearly doubling in price. Do not go here for dinner. Trust me on this one.
Pakarang is nobody’s favorite restaurant. From the décor to the service to the food, nothing about it feels personal and cozy and especially memorable. It does fill a niche and has a steady clientele to show for itself. But it’s no coincidence that most of that clientele is wearing slacks and blouses. This just ain’t our niche, and why should it be? Sawaddee is better, more “authentic,” and BYOB.
How to get there: Walk down College Hill toward downtown to get to South Main Street. The restaurant will be on the far side of the street, between Power and Williams Streets.
High: Wide menu, big dining room (in case, you know, you and your orchestra can’t get a reservation anywhere else), fast service. Biz cas.
Low: Ambience (like your grandmother’s apartment in a Floridian retirement home)… and food. Womp womp. The chefs could take greater pains over the details, or at the very least over a market run, and the food would improve greatly.
Bottom Line: Pretty ballsy of them to call their Thai “exquisite.” A fairer word is “decent,” which I’m sure all will agree on; even better, they could stop messing around with adjectives at all. It’s weird.