Take a moment to think about the really great meals in your life: the ones that take over a corner of your memory with resolve and are easily recalled in the greatest of detail; the ones that are never replicated in their entirety because the fleeting nature of experience doesn't allow for dress rehearsals.
If you don't have those memories, you should pay more attention to what you're eating.
Spring 2005. Luang Prabang, Laos. The table was outside; inside--though there were no doors or walls or windows--a large group sat on floor pillows drinking wine and recalling the day. Buddha lounge music--the kind of stuff that's mixed especially to make gringos feel like their Asian experience is more complete--hung in the air. No cars dotted the streets of dirt and rock, only pairs of bald and smiling monks walking by in their long tangerine robes en route to the glowing temple across the street. I remember it being unusually hot, the kind of sticky hot that's unnatural in such night darkness. We ordered larb--a signature Laotian dish--to start. Finely chopped beef. Chile pepper singed the tongue. Onions mixed in. Bone cold despite the weather. A dose of lime triggered saliva.
More than four years later, I sit in a strip mall Thai restaurant that still bears resemblance to the Chinese fast-food chain-joint before it. The early evening sun glints off the beige tiled floors and onto my Singha bottle. A series of bamboo blinds hide what was once the Chinese restaurant's ordering counter and a large picture of the Thai royal family hangs ever so slightly off-kilter on the blinds. The chili paste in my table's condiment caddy looks dry and unused. A wall-mounted TV support hangs empty in one corner, but in another corner--on a counter that once held a self-serve soft drink machine--sits a pint-sized TV babbling on low volume.
I sip my beer and make my way through one of two fresh spring rolls ($6.25). I note the crispness of the vegetables and nod approvingly about the forthrightness of the cilantro but grimace slightly at the lack of spice in the accompanying peanut sauce. Between the courses, I inspect the bathroom and find a space that doesn't get quite enough attention. I begin mentally composing my review in soundbites: Comparing Thai restaurants in Boise is like comparing the city's Burger Kings ... the differences are noticeable but ultimately negligible, the quality is functional but ultimately found wanting ... a Boise palate will find Thai Nalyn as pleasing or as disappointing as the next place.
And then a surprise. My larb ($9.95) arrives looking like the dish I'd had on a hot night in quiet Luang Prabang, a dish I'd sought out for four years in various restaurants on several continents (the wrong ones, mind you) without finding its equal. Thai Nalyn's version was exactly as I'd remembered. Beef chopped so finely it almost looked ground. Just enough chili to assault the mouth. A rub of lime for a bit of a wince. Cilantro to freshen the finish. Chopped lettuce rather than whole leaves because we're quite fond of our cutlery in Boise.
The business is a family affair, and when my server returned, I asked if her mother--the cook--wasn't Laotian rather than Thai, despite the restaurant's name and the proclivity for northern Thai cuisine to include larb on the menu. Sure enough, Laotian.
When I arrived at Thai Nalyn, I'd already planned to revisit a second time before putting words to the page. After the larb, I didn't need to. Instead I'll stick with parts of my earlier assessment: Boise palates will find Thai Nalyn as pleasing or as disappointing as the next Thai place, but then again, most Boise diners don't know Thai from shinola--or Laotian.
--Rachael Daigle secretly prefers Beer Lao to Singha.
Boise Weekly sends two reviewers to every restaurant we review. Read what our other reviewer had to say about Thai Nalyn here.