Hope springs eternal. Every time I see a flame, a chili or an asterisk on a menu denoting a spicy dish, I think, "Maybe this will be the place. Maybe this time, they're telling the truth." Nine times out of ten, I end up poking at a dish that barely has a speck of black pepper, much less something that will make my lips tingle.
At Lanna Thai? They don't lie.
Don't be fooled by the strip mall location. Lanna Thai is sunny, airy and elegant on the inside, with courteous service that's especially fast at lunch time. The flavors are bright and clear, and the heat is not dumbed down for American palates. Whether you're adventurous or seeking comfort food, you'll find something to satisfy your cravings here.
I could wax rhapsodic about the Pau-pia Sot appetizer (spring rolls, $5.95 for two). Bursting with bean sprouts, crunchy carrots and rice noodles, the sweet shrimp and juicy chicken are perfectly accented with fresh cilantro and basil. The emphasis is all on simple and fresh ingredients, with an earthy kick when you dip into the spicy chili and peanut sauce.
Ka-nom-jeeb Gai ($4.95) is another appetite teaser that works. The steamed dumplings are filled with a firm, meatball-textured combination of chicken, bamboo shoots, carrots and peas. The kicker is the topping of crispy garlic, minced and fried, which is pungent but not overwhelming. The vegetarian Pau-Pia Tod ($4.95 for three) was one of the few disappointments I found on the menu. The cigar-sized fried rolls, which are filled with carrots, celery, mushrooms, clear noodles, cilantro and black pepper, were dull. All I could taste was the celery and noodles.
The selection of lunch specials is accommodating, although not especially long. You can get Off-shore Sen-lek Tom Yum soup ($6.95). This is not the same as the Tom Yum Gai ($11.95) on the soup menu. The off-shore version features chewy rice noodles in chicken broth, with your choice of meat plus bean sprouts, crushed peanuts, green onions and cilantro. The initial taste of the soup is on the sweet side, but it mellows as you get down into the chicken and noodles. The version on the soup menu is the tart and tangy version, flavored with galangal (similar to ginger), kaffir lime leaves and lemon grass. It also contains mushrooms and tomatoes, and is served with rice on the side. Off-shore might be the place to start if you're hesitant about jumping into bold flavors.
Speaking of bold flavors, at lunch I ordered Pad Khee-mow ($6.95). The wide, chewy rice noodles were tossed with chicken, broccoli, snow peas, onions, baby corn, bell peppers and a shower of licorice-scented basil leaves. Even the "mild" still had a decent amount of kick.
If you want a light, refreshing lunch that will revitalize tired taste buds, try the Yum Nuah salad ($11.95). The base of romaine is stopped with red and green onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, lots of pungent cilantro and tender grilled beef. The lime dressing is sassy and spicy, and you'll be grateful for the steamed rice on the side to cool your mouth or soak up the dressing.
If you aren't feeling particularly adventurous, try the Lanna Kow Pad (Thai fried rice, $9.95). This mild dish, which offers your choice of chicken, beef or pork, is flecked with peas, carrots, onion and tomatoes. It's topped with a fried egg and garnished with cucumber and a fresh lime. We requested tofu instead of meat, and while the overall dish was good, the fried tofu cubes were tough and chewy.
The Pad Thai ($10.95) is another safe dish. Noodles are stir fried with chicken, shrimp and tofu, then combined with bean sprouts and green onion, and garnished with chopped peanuts. Although you can order it spicy, this dish is typically fairly mild, with a pleasant light sweetness.
Although I don't normally care for eggplant, the Pad Ma-khuer ($12.95) is a dish I would happily eat once a week. I don't know how they do it. The stir-fried slices of eggplant have a firm, almost meaty texture, soaking up the sauce of chili, fresh garlic, soy sauce and basil. We sampled it with tofu instead of meat, and the amount of succulent flavor in this dish made me want to lick the bowl.
Wait, you're thinking, what about curry? You can't go to a Thai restaurant without sampling the curry. In truth, I can, but I'm very glad I didn't.
The Gang Kiow-wahn ($12.95) is a green curry with coconut milk, an ingredient that sometimes overwhelms a curry. But at Lanna Thai, the coconut milk was just one of the players making up the whole. The rich, aromatic broth was flecked with red chili and filled with sweet peas, carrots, bamboo shoots, bell peppers, sweet basil and tender chicken. Although we ordered it Thai hot, the heat was nicely mitigated by the coconut milk.
I was thrilled to also discover an elusive, non-coconut milk curry, Gang Pah ($10.95). This lively broth is based on red curry paste, generally less complex than green curries but no less flavorful or spicy. It was a delicious and semi-fiery bowl full of chicken, bamboo shoots, bell peppers, snow peas, baby corn, mushrooms and sweet basil.
A couple of things to note: On my first visit, the waitress asked me if this was my first visit to Lanna Thai. When I said it was, she took the time to explain the heat levels might be hotter than what I was accustomed to. They were, and I loved it. Second, although the menu doesn't specify this, all the dishes that offer a choice of beef, chicken or pork can be made with tofu instead of meat. However, vegetarians might still want to inquire about sauces and broths, to avoid anything made with meat broth, fish sauce or shrimp paste.
Restaurant Character: Bright and airy restaurant with excellent Thai food. When they say spicy, they mean it, so order accordingly. Lots of fresh, lively flavors punctuated with copious amounts of fresh basil and cilantro.
Rating total: 5 out of 5 stars
Food: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Ambiance: 4 out of 5 stars
Service: 4 out of 5 stars
Value for the money: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Address: 8810 N. Union Blvd. (CQ)
Contact: 282-0474 (CQ); lannathaicosprings.eat24hour.com (CQ)
Hours: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday; 5-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 5-10 p.m. Fridays; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturdays (CQ)
Entrees: $8.95-$16.95 (CQ)
Credit cards: Yes
Vegetarian options: Yes; most dishes can be made with tofu instead of meat
What's online as of Aug. 28, 2013:
- 81 percent of 439 voters "liked it" on Urban Spoon
- 4 out of 5 stars based on 37 reviews on Yelp
- Not on Facebook
- No violations noted during an August, 2013 inspection by the El Paso County Health Department