The arrival of spring usually means a pleasant touch of color. And it extends to the plates at the small, charming Pearl Cafe, where pink noodles, black rice pudding, bright red and green bell peppers bring an extra spark to extremely tasty dishes at a Florissant location, improved by recycling a fast-food spot to provide sufficient parking (good) and delicious meals (better)
It's a second restaurant from The Truong family, which also operates Simply Thai, farther north on Lindbergh Boulevard; on a couple of visits, we noted a solid majority of regulars, ranging from three-generation groups to a couple loading up on ballast before a night of Clayton bar-hopping. The menu dances among Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese, mostly on the first two. Servers never asked about how much heat we preferred, and overall, the spicing was quite gentle. A few dishes delivered a moderate burn; our complaint is minor because the standard preparation showed sufficient flavor.
We're always interested in the variations of Vietnamese crepes, or banh xeo. Pearl's were among the crispiest around, although just a little greasy. Bits of pork join the bean sprouts and mung beans that fill the two crepes. The usual leaf lettuce and cilantro accompanied them, allowing for the Vietnamese habit of putting a portion of the crepe on a leaf, adding some cilantro and some of the sweet-salty dipping sauce, and making a roll-up somewhere between a burrito and stuffed cabbage. Chicken lettuce wraps follow the same pattern, this time with warm ground chicken and julienned bamboo shoots in a garlicky lemongrass-laced sauce.
The sleeper among the first courses are the Thai B.B.Q. ribs. Their marinade also rang with lemongrass and garlic, but also had the imprint of some fish sauce and a light hit of red pepper. Large, chunky ribs that had been cooked before they were grilled were joyously tender, and among the meatiest we've ever had. They were utterly irresistible, and arrived with a little woven basket of sticky rice.
We keep our eyes open for dishes that can ease a newcomer's way into an unfamiliar cuisine, and pad Thai is our usual go-to. A short step beyond that at Pearl is the coconut noodles, stirfried rice noodles with a little egg, tofu, green onion and by our choice, the “special” version, with shrimp, beef, chicken and pork. Wide shreds of coconut showered the top and perfumed the steam rising from the dish, but it was also unusual to the eye, since the noodles were pink. Red soy sauce, said the manager-type who came by to check on things. Very tasty in any color, we'd say.
One of the spicier dishes we tried (they're printed in red on the menu) was spicy eggplant with pork. A stirfry with a generous amount of pork, and lots of crisp red and green peppers, the Asian eggplant was as sweet as one expects it to be, providing a delightful contrast to the spicy, gingery sauce. Thai Chili Squid was another winner, the squid tender and satisfying. More of the colorful and tasty peppers, Thai basil and moderately spiced chili sauce left a pleasing tingle on the tongue. Good ingredients, excellent preparation. There's no way to resist sampling a curry, of course; we had the pineapple curry, which is a red curry sauce laced with coconut milk, with more of the red and green peppers, along with a little (wan–but hey, it's April) tomato and slices of chicken breast that weren't overcooked. Some heat here, certainly, but in a pleasing amount to accent the nice interplay among sweet, salty and hot-spicy. Pineapple perks up many dishes, and did so here. And kudos to the rice. Some of the most perfectly cooked rice we've enjoyed, not overcooked and mushy, each grain perfectly intact; if we'd eaten as much as we really wanted, we might still be at the table.
One dessert caught our eye, however, black rice pudding. Thinking that it would be a rice pudding made with black sticky rice, we ordered it. Rice pudding, yes, but white rice pudding made with coconut milk and including tapioca pearls like those found in bubble tea. And yes, they were black, but at first glance they looked exactly like fat blueberries in milk. It was not what we had expected, but it was an extremely pleasant dessert. It was improved by Thai-style iced coffee, similar to the Vietnamese, but with cardamom to heighten the flavor. It's served cold, with the condensed milk floating on top and a long spoon for stirring, instead of arriving hot in a drip-style server, then poured over ice.
Lots of beer options. Lots. And the pleasant service we've come to expect at Thai restaurants.
8416 N. Lindbergh Blvd., Florissant
Lunch & Dinner daily
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Fair