In the Dallas Restaurant Hunger Games, it is a good sign when restaurants stay open for more than a year. It’s an even better sign when they open additional locations. So, I couldn’t have been more excited that one of my favorite Thai spots, Pakpao, expanded. Business must be good. But with celebrity chef Jet Tila behind the menu, I’m not surprised.
Shortly after I discovered I was lactose intolerant 5 years ago, I found that Asian food of any variety – Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese, etc. – was much better for my newly-sensitive gut than other genres. In general, it seems that food from that part of the world does not include as many dairy products as other cuisines. So, I started making my way around the city searching for food that was rich in flavor, textural elements, sweet, yet spicy and, of course, free of anything that would result in frequent trips to the restroom. The original Pakpao location in the Design District became a favorite destination.
The new spot is one of the latest additions to the new Preston Hollow Village, located on the Northwest corner of Walnut Hill and 75, and it has the same attractive qualities that the Design District one offers. It’s intimate, approachable and serves authentic Thai dishes with extensive flavor profiles. The menu is very similar to the original location, but the great thing about Pakpao is that every one of its menus from happy hour to dinner to brunch is consistently satisfying. And my visit to the new location did not disappoint.
Happy Hour is available from 4-7 p.m. at the new location, but only in the bar area, with specialty cocktails and appetizers for $5. (Note: The mussels and chicken curry are not offered at happy hour prices.) I started off with a Papaya Punch and an order of steamed dumplings filled with ground pork, shrimp, ginger, scallion and topped with crispy garlic. It was the garlic that took this dish to the next level with tiny pops of sweetness.
Perhaps, the most surprising bite of the evening was the Crispy Morning Glory Salad, an original recipe from Jet’s grandmother. I don’t know what it is about matriarchs of families, but they know their way around a kitchen. They speak through food. I, obviously, never met this woman, but I have a feeling she’s pretty amazing. She has to be to create a salad made with Thai spinach that’s been fried and mixed with shrimp, shallot and a yum dressing served with cucumber relish. This salad makes me want to abandon all of my etiquette and just eat the spinach with my fingers. It’s perfectly crispy with meaty shrimp and just a splash of that “yummy” dressing. If all salads tasted like this, I think there would be more vegetarians in the world.
Short Rib with Massaman Curry and Crispy Tamarind Duck were our entrees of the evening, and each one touched the taste buds in different ways. The duck entree was sweet, spicy and a little sticky from the tamarind. Thai Holy basil brought a sweetness that added another dimension to a very savory dish.
The short rib curry, however, was a winner out of the two. I think braising may be my favorite method of cooking. There are so many deep and rich flavors that are developed during the braising process, but heartiness of the short rib was only amplified by the curry. And their choice of vegetables – onions and sweet potatoes – were the perfect accompaniments to the entree, providing bites of freshness and a crunchy texture. On a cold night in Dallas or maybe just an evening when you’re craving comfort food, this dish will stick to your ribs and warm your insides.
And then came dessert. Nothing could have truly prepared me for my next culinary experience. They brought out the coconut forbidden rice with pandan panna cotta and pomegranate. I wanted to try this dish because forbidden rice is such a cool ingredient. What was presented to us was a modern, structured dish that was much different than I expected. I tested each element of the dish and thought maybe I was missing something. Indeed I was.
You see, that’s the magic of this dessert. Alone, each component seems to be very simple and almost forgettable. But combine these together and you get an explosion in one bite. Each element that seemed bland by itself received a flavor boost from the other ingredients. And that, my friends, is the beauty of cooking. Experiences such as this remind me of why I love food. It goes far beyond the nutrition, but to the experiences that one has with one bite.
Jet Tila may be the brains of the operation, but Pierre Trevino, chef de cuisine at both Pakpao locations, is definitely working behind the scenes to make sure ideas come to fruition. I applaud them for creating innovative recipes that will challenge their customers’ palates. The new location is a bit more “family-friendly” compared to the Design District spot where lots of YPs are seen doing happy hour and brunches, but that’s okay. Their ability to cater to a slightly different demographic is just a testament to Pakpao’s flexibility in a dynamic restaurant market. Dallasites are searching for restaurants that deliver great ambiance and fancy cocktails, but also food and service that is consistently successful. And that why is Pakpao continues to see a packed house night after night.
(Disclaimer: My meal was complimentary, and all opinions are my own.)