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Gazette Premium Content Thai-style comfort food that deserves a return trip

By MB Partlow, mb.partlow@gazette.com - Updated: December 13, 2013 at 12:03 pm

As I sit down to write this, the weather outside is getting frightful. (Who knows what it will be like when you read this.) It's the time of year when we're looking for food to warm us up and keep us going. We crave richness and warmth, heartiness and spice. I feel lucky to live in a town where I can satisfy that craving through so many different cuisines.

NaRai Thai is a snug Thai restaurant in the Rockrimmon area. There are plenty of options on the menu to help warm you up, although the spice levels are played down, even for "Thai hot." Your server will not only know the intricacies of the menu, but will usually be able to help you choose a dish to suit what you're craving. Service is especially fast at lunch, but expect a slowdown on weekend evenings, when the restaurant fills up fast.

Before visiting NaRai, I didn't realize how well soft rice paper used for spring rolls could accommodate a warm filling. The Spicy Chicken Spring Rolls ($7) were a revelation. The soft, chewy rice paper holds a warm combination of mildly spicy chicken, bamboo shoots and bean thread noodles with a layer of crisp lettuce. The chili sauce on the side, which is flecked with chili seeds and possesses a subtle sweetness, adds a little extra kick.

Another interesting appetizer is the Cripy Tofu ($5). Cubes of tofu are deep-fried until golden brown on the outside, leaving the interior soft, mild and creamy. This comes with a clear, light, sweet-and-sour sauce with a hint of heat and some chopped peanuts for crunch.

Thai soups generally rely on a highly seasoned broth for their flavor. NaRai is no exception. The Tom Yum noodle soup ($10) is a hot-and-sour soup that is much thinner than the typical Chinese variety. Spicy from red chilies, the sour comes from lemongrass and lime juice, and is balanced with galangal (similar to ginger), a touch of pungent fish sauce and onion. This version is served over rice noodles, with your choice of chicken, beef or tofu. The amber soup comes topped with a sprinkle of black pepper and fresh cilantro leaves.

Most of the dinner menu is available in a smaller version on the lunch menu. The waitress recommended the garlic chicken noodles ($7.95) because I wanted something spicy with plenty of vegetables. The wide, thick noodles are stir-fried with egg, snap peas, red bell pepper and carrots. The whole thing is coated with a spicy roasted garlic sauce. Delicious, with a little zing from the chili married with a slightly sweet sauce, and the serving was big enough that I had to take half of it home.

Fast forward to a dinner trip, and the results were not as good. The Thai basil eggplant ($10.50) with tofu was a very small serving in a very large bowl. The flavors were delicious, with silky sauteed eggplant and tofu soaking up the garlicky, gingery sauce. But it was noticeably smaller than the other entrees on the table.

The combination Pad Thai noodles ($13.50) was a generous portion of chewy, wide rice noodles stir-fried with tender bits of chicken, beef and shrimp, plus egg, bean sprouts and ground peanuts. The seasoning was too heavy on the fish sauce, which meant even bites of chicken and beef had a fishy aftertaste.

I'm not a big fan of Chinese-American sweet-and-sour dishes. The breading is usually too thick, and so is the sauce. So I was delighted to discover the Thai version of this dish. The thinner sauce is still fairly sweet, but enlivened with garlic and red chilies. The fish version at NaRai ($13.95) features bite-sized pieces of filet of sole, which are tender and juicy beneath the sheer coating of batter. The dish also has crisp-tender bits of carrots and red bell pepper.

The biggest disappointment of the trip was the green curry ($10.50). We ordered it Thai hot, and when it came to the table, there was not a single speck of chili to be seen. The heat level was suitable for a small child, which is to say, extremely mild. When we caught a server, she didn't listen to the fact that the dish had been prepared incorrectly, just hurried to bring us a small dish of freshly chopped chilies we could add. But extra chili added at the end is not the same as "Thai hot" seasoning cooked into the dish.

Other components of the curry were fine. The zucchini, mushrooms and red bell pepper were nicely cooked so they retained their firmness. The base sauce had a nice flavor from the combination of coconut milk, lemon grass, galangal and basil.

But the restaurant was busy and the focus was on getting us served and out as quickly as possible, instead of getting the food prepared correctly.

Still, I'm looking forward to my next trip to NaRai. I just won't visit on a busy weekend at dinner time.

DETAILS

Restaurant character: A cozy neighborhood restaurant serving good Thai food. Fast and efficient at lunch, it fills up quickly for weekend dinners.

Rating total: 3.75 out of 5 stars

Food: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Ambiance: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Service: 3 out of 5 stars

Address: 805 Village Center Drive, 80919

Contact: 531-5175, www.narai-thai.com

Hours: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-9 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; noon-9 p.m. Saturday; noon-8 p.m. Sunday

Entrees: $10-$14.95

Alcohol: Yes

Credit cards: Yes

Vegetarian options: Almost every menu item can be made vegetarian

Wi-Fi: No

what's online As of Dec. 4:

- 78 percent of 125 voters "liked it" on Urban Spoon

- 4.5 out of 5 stars based on 70 reviews on Yelp

- Infrequently on Facebook; search "Narai Thai Restaurant"

- Two violations were corrected during a July inspection by the El Paso County Health Department

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