The King & I, as old-timers know, was the first Thai restaurant in St. Louis. We’ve always been extremely fond of it, and Ann has pleasant memories of stopping by en route to her evening shift and buying pad Thai take-out to replace hospital food. It’s grown over the years, moving across and north on South Grand Boulevard, adding more dining rooms, a success due to its perennial popularity with a crowd mostly dressed in jeans and sweaters or t-shirts. Not necessarily younger, mind you, although there always are those we mentally label as fresh out of graduate school.
In the last couple of years, we’ve found the heat quotient upped a tad; an order for "medium" brought what formerly this kitchen would have labeled as "hot." That was a surprise; the Prapaisilps had told us years ago that the only thing not as authentic as their own memories and family recipes was the spice level, toned down slightly for American tastes when they became restaurateurs. The family also owns the nearby Jay Foods, Global Foods in Kirkwood and several other Asian restaurants. Maybe, we thought, they’d decided to crank things up - or maybe it was just that someone new was in the kitchen.
Now, however, things seem to be back to the earlier levels, and we’re glad. While we tend toward being metalmouths, we know many eaters who are put off by even medium-spicy food, and meals here are too good to miss. Besides, those who like fire on the tongue as well as in the belly need only request it of the server.
Specials are posted at the inside door, so any delay in being seated allows for consideration of the possibilities. Most of the time, we avoid delving heavily into dishes with those labels, tempting as they may be. As reviewers, we see no point singing the praises of delicious dishes that won’t be available 48 hours after we sample them, although there are restaurants in the city that have had the same special on the menu for a decade. And since some specials eventually graduate to the main menu, we think one is permissible, and this visit, we couldn’t resist a first course offering called "sweet pork with sticky rice."
Skewers of thinly sliced, lean pork were brushed with a lightly sweet glaze and grilled. Alongside came a small, lidded basket with the toothsome sticky rice, which we consider one of the great dishes (Love that stuff.) We expected it to be nothing more than a polite gesture, but somehow the combination worked well, the rice providing a pleasant change of taste as well as texture. And a bowl of tom yum, the clear, tangy soup that’s a Thai standard, was particularly citrusy, a sunny shot on a cold, nasty night. Tofu cubes are an easy contrast to the sharp lemon grass and gingery galangal flavors in the broth, which also had some mushrooms.
We’ve always been a fan of the "salads" in Thai restaurants. We use quotation marks because that’s their phrase, but by most American standards, they’re a warm main course sauced with a clear vinegar dressing that’s not only tart but spicy and, to varying degrees, sweet. The ability to make these flavors show contrast and still work as a team is one of the great joys of Asian cuisine. The grilled beef salad (shown below, left) is a worthy entree, thin slices of good-quality beef in that dressing, with the traditional red onions and some cilantro. (We miss the squid version of this, called yum squid, that used to be on the menu, although if memory serves, it arrived cool rather than warm.) Pad seafood, "pad" referring to what’s more or less a stir-fry, arrived with shrimp, several large mussels, some white-fleshed fish and squid. (Below, right.) Happily absent was any sign of the fake crab that’s found too often in such mixtures. A few onions and slices of carrot had wandered by, but this was mostly about the denizens of the deep in a brown and deeply flavorful. The beef salad was ordered as medium heat, the seafood as somewhere between medium and hot. Both of them were calm enough to taste lots of things besides pepper. We did notice when we paid the check that both had been entered as medium, but the seafood was indeed hotter than the beef.
The wine list has not grown as large as the restaurant, but it’s of good size, far better than those found at most Asian establishments. It leads with several off-dry wines like Riesling and Gewurztraminer, some from Alsace, some from California, and they’re excellent matches with spicy food. Even though the label says "dry," these wines always have some residual sweetness that cuts the spice. Some reds are also available, but we’d like to see some sparklers, another wine that works with Asian cuisine.
"Fried bananas," said the dessert menu, and we had visions of them sauteed with a little lime juice, brown sugar and pepper–but it turned out to be banana fritters, chunks dipped in a batter and deep-fried, drizzled with honey and served with ice cream. They reminded us of really good sopapillas, chewy-crispy and cool-warm. A nice finish to things.
The King & I
3157 South Grand Blvd.
Lunch and Dinner Tuesday-Sunday
Credit Cards: All major
Wheelchair access: Adequate