I had been warned. "Once you eat at Little Bangkok," a co-worker told me, "you'll want to eat there all the time. You'll think about it every day. It's addictive."
On first glance at the menu, I was skeptical. It seemed like run-of-the-mill Thai food, certainly an enjoyable cuisine even in its run-of-the-mill strain. But... powerful? The type of food that holds sway over you and calls you back against your will? I doubted it.
And certainly, on first taste, I trusted my original assessment: run-of-the-mill Thai food, albeit very good typical Thai food. But by the time I had cleaned my plate of that first heaping serving of pad Thai, I knew I had judged too quickly. There is a richness to every dish here, an amped-up quality that brings all the best things about typical flavors into the light. The oily, slightly funky, sweet comforting solace of that pad Thai made its point. Long after I was stuffed full, I was still shoving the noodles, chicken and shrimp down my gullet. I was back the next day for more.
The unassuming location on Cheshire Bridge Road does not have enough parking for the legions of fans that frequent the restaurant, nor is there enough space in the entranceway to hold the backlog of customers who wait for a table. A small dance must be learned: Shuffle to one side to let the waiter push behind the front desk, shuffle to the other side to let someone come in the front door, nod your head in apology to the person you bumped into mid-shuffle, repeat. But once you are seated in the colorful, mirrored dining room, the endearingly friendly servers and food that arrives at lightning speed from the kitchen will have you happy and comfortable. I have never had sub-par service here, and I have seen the staff deal with customer hissy-fits over the wait for a table or the fear of MSG ("No sir, we assure you that we never would use that") with grace and diplomacy.
Soups come in individual portions, but do yourself a favor and add drama to your table with a hotpot, which arrives (literally) flaming hot. Devotees of Little Bangkok's tom ka soup know that it's almost like drinking sauce rather than soup because it's so thick and rich, the creamy coconut brought into balance by lime and chili. The nau num tok appetizer offers a cooling counterpoint to the rich soup, with strips of sirloin and onion marinated in lime and mint, served with cabbage. It's hard to go wrong with any of the appetizers, soups and salads here, or with the rest of the Thai menu for that matter.
Curries are also exceedingly rich, and while they lack some of the complexity of the more carefully crafted curries to be found at higher-priced Thai places around town, they are pure comfort, and as highly addictive as that pad Thai. But if you're looking for a treat, it's most often found on the specials menu, which always offers 10-20 entrees and changes nightly. A recent special of spicy eggplant chicken is full of garden-fresh, soft-and-sweet Asian eggplant and hunks of green chili. The chicken imbued with the haunting aura of fresh basil, this is stir-fry made with care, each vegetable and spice given its own consideration. In the age of create-your-own stir fry -- where often everything is thrown into the pan at once, resulting in undercooked vegetables and obliterated spices -- it's nice to have an extra measure of skill applied to the task.
The kitchen's secret here seems to be of overloading on one ingredient, on not holding back, and who can complain when a special of snapper comes so enrobed in fresh ginger that the delicate white flesh seems to complement the spice rather than the other way around? Bland is not a concept that enters these walls.
You need only consider the Chinese side of the menu when striving for a diplomatic solution to eating out with unadventurous friends or family members. Little Bangkok will supply those spice-wary relatives and picky children with a perfectly edible and uninspiring beef with broccoli, along with a host of other Americanized Chinese dishes. But what a waste of tummy space when beauties such as mango snapper, sweet and spicy and freshened by lime, could be filling the void.
Atlanta is a city rich in ethnic eateries, from super-authentic to fine dining. But sometimes, you just want a welcoming room with prices that won't kill you and food that soothes your soul. A kick of spice, the balm of coconut, the tangy sweetness of ginger call you back. You have no choice.