The restaurant inhabiting the space between the fine and reliable Indonesian restaurant Bandung and the long-lived Wah-Kee Noodle in the Gateway Mall hasn't traditionally had a lot of luck. El Charro. Dimitri's Gyros. A Korean restaurant. Mekong. All gone. All kaput.
Now comes Bangkok Cuisine, serving mainstream Thai dishes. The decor, or lack thereof, remains about the same from the Mekong era. The place has the look of a factory lunchroom, without the vending machines. That wouldn't matter to me if the food was great, but Bangkok Cuisine seems to be aiming for the lowest common denominator.
The menu is arranged according to dish type - soups, noodle stir-fries, curry stir-fries and fried rice dishes. There's no enticing section labeled "Chef's specials" or "House specialties" where you have a chance to try a dish you've never eaten or heard of before.
The peanut curry (add chicken, beef, tofu or pork, or for an additional charge, shrimp or squid) ordered as three-out-of-four-stars hot was only slightly spicy. The sauce was pleasant, sweet and peanutty enough, but it didn't have depth or character, or interesting spice notes of cilantro or ginger. The green pepper was cut in jumbotron-inspired chunks, though it was well cooked. The chunks of grilled tofu were good enough, although like the peppers, they tasted too much of the grill.
The gang keaw wan - green peppers, eggplant and peas in a green curry sauce - ended up tasting a lot like the peanut curry, due in part to the predominating chunks of grilled green pepper. This time, ordered with four out of four stars, it was decently hot. Four stars is the cue to really bring it on.
Other curries are potato (yellow curry), seafood (red basil curry) and pad ped (red coconut curry). Missing is a basic curry found at most Madison Thai spots, red curry with squash. It's the dish I tend to use to compare one to another. I suspect that if Bangkok Cuisine served it, it would taste a lot like its other curries, because everything's made the same way: the vegetable and protein selection are fried up, and the sauce is added at the end. So food from Bangkok Cuisine tastes more similar to food from Chinese storefront takeouts and hibachi carts than it does to other Thai restaurants.
The pad thai was an unappealing tandoori orange color - think mercurochrome. The noodles, the chicken, the bean sprouts - all orange. The only thing that wasn't orange was the lime slice to squeeze over the dish. The add-on, chicken, was also left in jumbo chunks, and was dry and flavorless. The color of the pad thai, while startling, did not seem to impart any particular taste to it, either good, or bad. Again a request for three-star heat seemed closer to a one.
To look on the bright side, the grill treatment works pretty well at imparting flavor to the tofu. And though I object to the ungainly size of the vegetable pieces and the similar-tasting sauces, it's all passable. It's just a long way from the rich curries at Sala Thai or even the takeout Thai specials from The Corner Store, just down Williamson Street.
Bangkok Cuisine did better with its spring rolls, which were fresh, stuffed with noodles, lettuce, cucumber, mint and a small slice of shrimp. The roll could stand more than such a slender sliver of shrimp. And the rolls are nothing much without the accompanying sauce, a vinegary one, loaded with peanuts, flecks of hot red pepper and cilantro. But they do have promise.
The best bets from the menu are the soups, a vibrant tom yum (a hot and sour lemongrass soup that's full of tomato, mushrooms and onions, although again the pieces are all cut too large) and gai tom ka (chicken in coconut milk and lime and lemongrass broth).
Every visit I've made to Bangkok Cuisine, the place has always been out of takeout menus. If you're essentially serving takeout Thai, couldn't you get around to printing up some menus?