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Chicken Little Reviews: Thai Spice


Thai Spice
How does Thai Spice, located at 1210 S Gilbert St. in Iowa City, stack up? — photo by Alarcon Avila

It’s no coincidence that people who live in hotter climates enjoy fiery cuisine year-round; it’s basic science: Spicy food makes you sweat; sweat makes you cool down. The aptly named Thai Spice has the best green curry in town, but I don’t find it to be unbearably spicy; the coconut milk cuts the heat with a creamy richness that’s addictive. There are some dishes at Thai Spice, however, that will not only make you sweat, they’ll make your whole face run like a faucet. Still, even with all that spice, so full of flavor and of balance, you’ll find yourself unable to stop eating, despite the discomfort.

Most dishes on Thai Spice’s menu are available on an occasionally inconsistent spice scale of one to five, and my friends and I order the green papaya salad at a level three—which is not for the weak; the salad is served with cooling wedges of green cabbage and a side of rice, though, so as long as you plan your bites strategically, it’s not only bearable, it’s sublime.

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I first developed my addiction to Thai Spice when I tried their tom yum kung, a sour and mildly spicy soup with shrimp, lemongrass, galangal, tomato and straw mushrooms. Again, the balance that Thai food is known for is outstanding in this dish, with each bite delivering a perfect complement of complex tastes and textures, ranging from salty to sour, spicy to sweet, with the firm, juicy bite of shrimp and silken smooth mushrooms offsetting one another perfectly.

Because of my curiosity about the cuisine’s complex flavor profiles, I’ve never tried any of the simpler dishes at Thai Spice, like pad thai—though I have heard theirs is well executed and tasty. I can, however, vouch wholeheartedly for the yam woon sen, a cool salad of silver noodles, shrimp, onion and pickled garlic (which might be my very favorite food on the planet); the tao-hoo ob mor din, a clay pot full of shiitake mushrooms, silken tofu and cilantro served in an addictive, savory sauce; the crispy perfection that is the a-cho, or Thai egg rolls, and the tangy sauce they’re served with that I want to eat with a spoon; as well as the various curries, all of which display more subtleties than would seem possible for a dish Westerners have reduced to a can of pasty sauce.

The problem with Thai Spice, and I won’t be the first to say it, is the service. While the staff is gracious, it can, occasionally, take way too long for food to be delivered, or to place an order, or to get a refill of water or any other beverage; in the context of food so spicy, this lack of hydration can pose a particular problem. I’m not sure why the servers have such difficulty, although they do, occasionally, disappear into the kitchen for what feels like far too long, so I wonder if they’re also tasked with cooking—I don’t know, and I get frustrated with it every time I go there. But then the food arrives, and all is forgotten. Plus, it’s a beautiful space, full of lush tapestries and sculptures, and if I’m in good company, which I try to be at all times, it’s pleasing enough to wait. They also have takeout, which is ready promptly and might be a better bet if you’re in a hurry or if you just don’t feel like waiting.

Thai Spice is a little pricier than comparable restaurants in bigger cities; I’ve been told by Thais that it would be considered fine-dining in Thailand. It’s still considerably less expensive than American fine dining, though, and the entree portions are generous enough to make two spicy meals of most of them.

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