Lower South Hill Dining

by Luke Baumgarten & r & The lower South Hill is a gorgeously walkable community, with apartments and single-family dwellings radiating outward from two main clusters of commercialism, one on Grand near St. John's Cathedral, the other at Lincoln and 14th. The houses, while aged, are well kept, while the apartment complexes are mostly small, running the gamut from inoffensive to picturesque. The parks are numerous and easy on the eyes. Trees line streets and occupy front yards, their roots threatening, in places, to burst from underneath the sidewalks. Even Grand Boulevard -- a four-lane arterial -- ambles uphill, only sporadically bustling with traffic.

It seems like the perfect place for nice people to raise families. Like, almost too perfect. There are yet some pieces missing. Is there anything we aren't being told about the lower South Hill? Sure it's idyllic and the pace is unhurried, but is it a good place for some bomb-ass Thai food? Junior's going to need those unique pan-Asiatic nutrients to grow up big and strong.

And -- for that matter -- how's the beer at the neighborhood pizzeria? Is there beer at all? Will Dad be able to spend a quality evening with the family and simultaneously unwind with a nice microbrew, the way God intended? Or will he have to settle for Pabst? Or Pepsi?

These are the questions the neighborhood association doesn't answer for you. Thankfully, we're here to do some investigatory noshing. You probably already know about Lindaman's desserts, Rockwood Bakery's pastries, Picabu Bistro's lunches and Paprika's gilded Americana (if you don't, you need to check them out), so we thought we'd focus on some of the area's lesser-known and newer flavors.

Bangkok Thai & r & I can't even begin to think about a Thai place -- and where it sits on my Thai-place radar -- until I've had the Pad Thai and the Gang Daeng. I have to test the elasticity of the bamboo shoots, the freshness of the Thai basil. I have to assign the Pad Thai sauce a score from one to 15, based on several independent criteria. Only then can I branch out, try something new, even look around the place and notice the d & eacute;cor. Until I have the Pad Thai and Gang Daeng, the blinders are on.

Then I step into this place. The walls are a deep crimson, to which faux-texturing adds depth and grandeur. Large, well-placed windows and a high, slanted ceiling channel tons of light into the space. There's a very fine line between Thai tasteful and Thai tacky. The key, I think, is placement. Where you put those massive, intertwined brass Buddhas makes all the difference in the world. Not too close to the huge bas-relief of the charging elephant, but not too far away either. Then you must decide what to do about the big, naked-chick fountain.

It's like Thai Feng Shui.

When done right, you can achieve something akin to making wine from water: configuring all those massive, garish set pieces into a well-appointed, even beautiful, dining space. That's what Bangkok Thai has managed since opening in early June.

I step into this place, and I suddenly can't remember what I was going to order. Luckily I've written it on my hand. Pad Thai and Gang Daeng, right. I could get these one of two ways, together in a lunch combination ($7, with egg rolls) or separately and in larger portions on the dinner menu (Pad Thai: $10; Gang Daeng: $9). I went small, and ordered a Chicken Satay ($7) appetizer. Joel went with the Pad Prik Khing ($10).

The Satay was delicious, the curried marinade providing just the right contrast to their thick, sweet and tasty peanut sauce. I fought Joel for the last piece, and lost. Our main dishes arrived in nice, leaf-shaped dishes. Mine was partitioned into three sections for the lunch combo. I ate the Pad Thai first, as I always do. It was unremarkable though not terrible. The noodles were a bit over-cooked and the sauce was a bit too sweet and insipid. The chicken, bizarrely, was cooked perfectly. The Gang Daeng, though, was magnificent. The curry was just right. The bamboo shoots were crisp. The Thai Basil was fresh enough to have been overnighted from Phuket. Joel was a big fan of his Pad Prik Khing -- believing, as he does, that beef and basil are foods eaten by the gods themselves.

We both ordered our dishes medium on the spice scale, but even that was a little on the spicy side for our white-boy palates. It wasn't uncomfortably hot, but we still recommend a Thai Iced Tea ($2) for its spice-quelling properties.

Bennedito's & r & Tasty, massive, cheap. That's the by-the-slice trifecta in my book. Everything else is garnish. It's tough to find that kind of place, though, in today's wintry economic climate. Margins are notoriously thin; pizza joints live and die by the fluctuations in the tomato paste market. If a place has big, tasty slices, they're usually not cheap. If they're cheap, they're usually not very tasty... or big. You understand.

The slices on display at Bennedito's were big, and the hunks of meat were numerous and thick, looking like they'd been sawed right off the flank of some central Italian sausage beast. The by-the-slice prices weren't on display, which was immediately worrisome.

The place was slammed when we went in, and a little under-staffed, but no one seemed to mind. People from different parties chatted with each other and with the staff. The environment was downright neighborly, but that didn't help me gauge the price of a slice. Would they be millions of dollars? Judging by the quality, I expected so. I looked at the whole pizza menu, which included a healthy assortment of calzones, salads and hot sandwiches. These prices were on the moderate to high end. A troubling sign.

I finally flagged someone down and asked. He shrugged, "Uh, they're like a buck-30 or something." The actual prices are $1.36 for cheese and $1.63 for meatier and pesto-ier selections. Damn cheap.

And heart-achingly good. We sampled an array of slices, all of which were passable (and of the $1.63 variety) and most of which were downright wonderful. The pesto and cheese was a favorite of my companion but didn't have enough verve for me -- too much cheese muddling not enough pesto. The pepperoni, though, was better than I could have hoped for. The huge, smoky pancakes of spiced meat rocked my palate whilst the tomato sauce provided a sweet, if unremarkable, counterpoint. The same was true of the ham and pineapple.

For more exotic ingredients -- from prosciutto to kalamata olives to Gruyere -- you're going to have to go with a full pizza (larges in the $12-$23 range) or a calzone ($7-$8).

They have several microbrews on tap (under four bucks for the 20-ounce), but the list seems to rotate quickly, so offering it here is a little silly. I will say, though, if you stop in and happen to see the Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout on tap, hit it. Approaching 9 percent alcohol by volume, it's the Czar's own crunk juice.

BitterSweet Bakery and Bistro & r & BitterSweet occupies a really nice space on South Grand. They've taken a cue from the lofty ceilings and the large bank of windows on the frontage, leaving the smallish dining area very open and roomy. They've sacrificed tables, perhaps, but added comfort.

Their menu has an assortment of pastries and desserts, but focuses on a selection of fancy, meaty French crepes ($8). Though they've been open less than four months, they've got the Old World delicacies down.

I had the Brettonne, roasted chicken and mushrooms with Gorgonzola and caramelized onions. I could have done with a more assertive cheese, but the chicken was juicy and perfectly grilled. The caramelized onions added a nice sweet finish to each bite. The crepes themselves were browned and crispy, almost to the texture of a tortilla, while retaining that signature sweetness.

One companion (a reluctant vegan) tried the Vegetarienne, which also has caramelized onions -- but also folds in spinach and garlic with cr & egrave;me fraiche and Gruyere. The effect lost some texture (no meat, duh), but the Gruyere and garlic added a nice tang and punch. The other had the Italian crepe. In contrast to the more delicate flavors of the other crepes, this one exploded like a taste-bud uppercut. Eggplant is just about the only neutral flavor here, joined by prosciutto, black olive, fontina and tapenade to create a mouth-orgy. Certainly powerful and tasty, but also balanced.

The crepes are decidedly a lunch item, but my companions and I rocked them around breakfast. The lush, subdued flavors were perfect for morn-time, though the Italian might be a little intense that early.

So the food's good, but there's one thing you always need to look for in a place that specializes in European cuisine (be it French, Italian, Hungarian, whatever): a headmistressly willingness to give impromptu language lessons. I tested it by purposely mispronouncing my crepe, saying, "Uh, I'll have the Br-EH-tuhn." The lass at the counter, who had undoubtedly kicked around Gaul a bit, gently corrected me, "Ah, the Brettonne," leaving her jaw distended momentarily, drawing out the 'ah' sound, letting me know the proper pronunciation was to linger on the "nne" for but the briefest of moments.

God bless these Francophiles, their food and their fascistic adherence to language.

Fiesta Mexicana & r & There's something inherently neighborly about a Mexican restaurant. I'd go so far as to say: If you ain't got a Mexican restaurant, you ain't got a neighborhood. Azteca -- good, but a chain -- doesn't count. Fiesta Mexicana does count, though. The d & eacute;cor looks a little too much like every Mexican joint you've ever been in, but makes up for it with a friendly staff (who seemed to know many people by name) and some tasty takes on south-of-the-border standbys.

Especially good was the arroz con pollo ($11), which had big hunks of chicken, onions, peppers and mushrooms swimming in a tangy, spicy -- almost sweet -- red sauce. I couldn't tell if the tortillas were homemade, but they were pillowy and so damned hot I could barely touch them. Both good things. The Camarones Fiesta Mexicana ($11.25) seemed to be nearly the same dish -- certainly the same sauce at least -- with prawns instead of chicken.

Pride Night Out: Arts & Culture Crawl @ Human Rights Education Institute

Wed., June 16, 6 p.m.
  • or