by Joel Smith & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & t a performance at the Shop two weeks ago, Portland singer-songwriter Krist Krueger (who plays under the name Southerly) spent much of his between-song gab time extolling the wonders of Linnie's Thai Cuisine, to which employees of the Shop had treated him before the concert. He looked a little dazed and kept asking the audience if they'd eaten there and did they turn out OK, suggesting that maybe the establishment puts a little extra something into the food, because "my insides are doing amazing things right now." He wondered if the cuisine had hallucinogenic properties.
It had been a while since I'd visited Linnie's. I didn't recall anything that spectacular about the food, but when someone tells you it made his insides "vibrate," you gotta look into it.
Considering the Shop's location on the South Hill, Krueger most likely visited the location on 29th Avenue. My culinary cohorts and I, however, visited the newer location on busy Third Avenue, into which the owners moved three years ago, vacating the space that would become Bangkok Thai on Grand Avenue. Bangkok Thai, it seems, got the better end of that deal; they ended up with one of the slickest, most well-appointed Thai restaurants we've ever seen.
Linnie's, on the other hand, got the former Shack, a greasy spoon, mom-and-pop diner beloved for its breakfasts and its grouchy grandma waitresses. And in fact, you can experience all that charm again, as they offer American breakfasts every morning except Monday.
Linnie's looks less like an authentic Thai restaurant and more like a thin veneer of Thai laid over ... something else. Bas-relief scenes of rural Thailand hang over gaudy faux-brick wainscoting. Ornate Thai umbrellas dangle from the Swiss chalet ceiling. A fountain gurgles in one corner of the main dining room, filled with brown Naugahyde booths and carpeted in maroon flowers. Off to the side, raised above the main room and separated by a poorly concealed folding gray partition, is some sort of special-events room. Overall, the place looks a little like Dunder-Mifflin shot its office party budget to host Thai Day at the local Shari's.
Luckily, the menu doesn't exhibit this same cultural ambivalence. Linnie's is 100 percent Thai, with 48 nearly unpronounceable items, easily numbered for idiots like us -- No. 18 to No. 30 are chicken, beef and pork dishes with rice. Nos. 12-17 are spicy curries. The vegetarian selection is slim (Nos. 38-40, although they do offer four salads), but who flies to Thailand to eat curry tofu?
We began our steady intake of meat with a plate of pad Thai ($7) and an order of chicken satay ($7.50), curiously numbered "3a" on the menu. (How is chicken satay a subset of No. 3, "red b-b-q pork"?) The chicken was disappointing at first -- there was precious little meat on those four skewers. But the flavor was very satisfying, especially with a little of the accompanying peanut dipping sauce.
The pad Thai was probably the most subdued we've had. Not overly creamy nor overly sweet nor possessed of too much tomato, it was a rather dry affair, but that's not to say it was flavorless. It was quite flavorful when the spice-quotient was raised (can't really recommend it with 0 stars on Linnie's heat-and-spice scale) -- and with chicken added (we tried it on a subsequent visit), it was even better. The long white meat strips were cooked to perfection and topped with a healthy amount of chopped peanuts. Luke says he'd have liked a little lime on the side to really bring out the dormant flavors, but it didn't come with it and he didn't ask. Stupid.
For our entrees, Zack and I ceded the curry section of the menu to Luke, a self-proclaimed expert on the subject. Having eaten peanut butter sandwiches my whole life -- and having incorporated the stuff into a favorite curry dish in my own kitchen -- I went with No. 18, the Gai Pahd Peanut Butter ($9). The problem is that, unlike my mother, who single-handedly kept the La Victoria hot sauce company in business, I've long been a baby-mouth. So I stuck with the "1-star" rating on the peanut butter dish and regretted it for the rest of the meal. The dish itself was quite good: hunks of chicken swimming in that peanut-buttery sauce, big squares of onion, green bell pepper. It was very sweet and had a nice, somewhat rich flavor. It just lacked the backbone of spicy flavor that would've been there if I weren't such a chicken.
Better was Zack's No. 29 ($10), which came with two alternate unpronounceable names. Though it looked underwhelming when it hit the table, when tossed with the supplied rice (which comes in weird, silver-footed bowls) the sublimely rich dish of pork, garlic and peppers, garnished with mint leaves, was a treat.
That leaves, of course, Luke's treatise on his No. 13 red curry with beef ($11), which he calls "spot-on," with its crisp bamboo shoots and just the right degree of heat. "The only reservation was the beef strips, which were a bit tough," he says, with a little schmutz still pasted to his lower lip. "Curries tend to be orders of magnitude hotter than other Thai dishes, and this was no exception. If you're accustomed to three stars on pad Thai or stir-fried beef, you might want to downgrade a star or two on the curries. I routinely rock three stars on Thai noodle dishes, but two stars on the red curry this time had my nose beaded with sweat. Three might well have killed my ass."
Well said, friend.
Linnie's Thai Cuisine, 1301 W. Third Avenue, is open Mon 11 am-9 pm; Tue-Sat 6:30 am-9 pm; and Sun 6:30-11 am. Call 838-0626.
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