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Tuesday, September 30, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 44.0° F  Overcast
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Sala Thai: Curry up and wait
Great flavor -- and a few growing pains -- meet up
Sala Thai is a well-attended spot, but the service keeps everything moving at a comfortable pace.
Sala Thai is a well-attended spot, but the service keeps everything moving at a comfortable pace.
Credit:Linda Falkenstein

Standing at the corner of Milwaukee and Fair Oaks, there's hardly an eatery in sight. The lonely Fair Oaks Diner stands in the center of a vast expanse of residential acreage, ancient commercial space, and the US Post Office compound. Given the nature of the fare at Fair Oaks Diner, let's say you could slide right by and miss any chance of dining out in this neighborhood.

That is, until fairly recently. At the end of May, the neglected former site of La Mexicana grocery was reborn as Sala Thai, and the east side took immediate notice.

Sala Thai is operated by the underheralded wife and husband team of "Pone" and "Pane" Vanphravong, the restaurateurs who brought you Bahn Thai and the secretly wonderful curries at The Corner Store. Judging by the rapid response online and at the front door, this was an entrepreneurial consummation devoutly to be wished.

The bench out front is sadly inadequate to maintain what at times can be a significant wait list. I've ridden that bench for a good twenty minutes on a Wednesday night; I haven't dared try a Thursday or Friday. Sala Thai is, by its employees' own description, too small to accomodate reservations. A smart diner will be prepared to wait.

Once seated by the very friendly waitstaff, you might notice that the space has a remarkably worn-in feel for such a young establishment. Decor is vibrant but not overdone, bestowing the same genuine sense of Thailand as the glittering namesake pavilion at Olbrich Botanical Gardens.

One of the best features of a good Thai restaurant is that a very wide-ranging menu is not too diffiicult to carry off. With myriad spices and seasonings easy to store, little Sala Thai can still maintain a six-page menu of curries, seafood, appetizers, noodles and specials.

That's not to say such a broad menu always stands up under its own weight. My first choice of main course, a sour pork sausage dish called kao tod nem som, was out of stock. Similarly, the exotic beer menu as displayed on each table is provided by the supplier and doesn't necessarily correspond to actual availability. Tsingtao and Singha were available; Tiger was not.

Still, there are more than enough options for nearly any taste. And for the truly famished, there are the appetizers. Oh my, the appetizers. Egg rolls and crab rangoon are there for those interested in familiar friends from the usual take-out menu. The curry puffs (basically a samosa, with potatoes, spinach and onion) and veggie potstickers, though, are superb. All the appetizers sampled were under $4 for at least four sizeable rolls/puffs/what have you, all rocket-hot and very flavorful.

It's hard for me to say "no" to curry. Any menu with curry dishes will get my attention, and a certain exertion is required to order otherwise. The som tam gai yang, a subtly spicy chicken dish with shredded green papaya and peanuts, is served cool but heats up fast as the chiles pick up a head of steam. The meat is almost complementary rather than dominant, but you'll still probably have some to take home.

That's true of much of the main course menu at Sala Thai, however. The sister dishes of yellow chicken curry and beef musamun curry feature big, tender chunks of meat with potatoes (and, in the musamun, cashews that have been stewed within an inch of their lives) and a hearty coconut broth. They're almost certain to lead to leftovers for all but the hungriest diners.

One can move slightly farther off the beaten path with the catfish dish called pad phet pla duke. The delicately fried catfish - accompanied by bamboo shoots, mushrooms and basil - is amped up by a red curry both musky and lively. If you're not a big basil fan, beware; it's a power chord here. And to devotees of the curry squash at Lao Laan-Xang, let it be known that Sala Thai's squash curry with tofu poses a formidable challenge. Creamy, rich and warming, this curry will definitely be a return engagement farther into autumn.

Throughout the meal, the chatter of conversation fills the air. This is a well-attended spot, but the service keeps everything moving at a comfortable pace. At the end, the check is more than reasonable given the quantity of food. Like Inka Heritage on the opposite side of town, Sala Thai has taken an easily overlooked storefront and turned it into a truly inviting and affordable experience.

The food is fresh, tasty, and ample. Diners looking to Sala Thai will find a neighborhood restaurant that's worthy of the meaning behind its name. In the midst of an otherwise quiet locale, Sala Thai is an ideal place to gather, converse, and dine - if you're willing to wait for a seat.

Sala Thai, 36 S. Fair Oaks Ave., 608-246-1889

Lunch 11 a.m.-9:30 pm Mon.-Thurs., 11 am-10 pm Sat., 5-9:30 pm Sun.

$6.50-$14. Carryout, credit cards. Alcohol served. Not handicap-friendly.

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