Food Issue - Around the world: Thailand

Tropical flavor at Panita Thai Kitchen

Thursday October 21, 2010 04:00 am EDT

Maybe it's the riotous cascade of Buddhist and tropical decorations. Maybe it's the slightly sloping wooden floors. Maybe it's the covered porch of a dining room that sits set back on the street of its Virginia-Highland neighborhood like some kind of secret indoor garden. Or maybe it's the food, served in hollowed out tropical fruits, which bursts with the sweet mystery of tamarind, ginger and chile. But something about Panita Thai Kitchen, something very visceral, makes it feel as though you're in an exotic Asian location rather than a yuppie Atlanta neighborhood.

Owners Panjakarn and Cindy Thammaset endeavor to conjure their native Chiang Mai, in Northern Thailand, and have been doing so since 1998. The restaurant, in a house down a side street, is almost laughably inconspicuous; it announces itself to the world with a small sign that looks like a middle school art project. But once you travel down the garden path and step through the doors, you're met with a jumble of Thai sculptures, fake flowers, wind chimes, hanging toy parrots, and the smiling face of Cindy who hurriedly shows you to your seat before rushing off to tend to her other tables. (Cindy is the only waitperson and Panjakarn the only cook.)

If have yet to be transported by this point, the food should do it, as should Panjakarn's famously dangerous cocktails, which usually contain a number of tropical fruit juices and almost every liquor you can think of. His cooking is not the usual Thai fare found in American restaurants, although standard curries and noodle dishes are available and tasty. The overload of lime, chile and basil in many of the specialty dishes (try the laab ped, crispy juicy duck soaked in the aforementioned ingredients) will surpass what you may have known of Thai food in the past.

Whatever it is about Panita Thai Kitchen, the enchanting restaurant succeeds in taking us to a world full of personality and flavor.

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