When it comes to Thai food around Fort Wayne these days, its growth has made it difficult for new places to separate themselves.
If it has the right selection of dishes we have become used to and there is just the right amount of curry or other spices on the chicken, there really isn't much difference from one place to another, given they all sort of have the same look, too.
So when I visited Thai Diner in The Shoppes of Illinois Road recently, I went in with a bit of a blasé attitude thinking it, too, would leave me searching for something interesting to say about it. But one dish, a salad, excited me.
The Yum Goon Chaing featured Thai sausage dressed with lime juice and was served with a side of sticky rice. Sausage is not something that ever comes to mind when I think of Thai food. If this was a German restaurant, sure, but not Thai.
The sliced sausage, which was less than an inch in diameter, in this dish was dried and cured. It was joined by thin slices of red onion and red and green bell peppers, and there were a couple of cucumbers and an orange slice as garnish. The sausage was spicy – as was the dressing – but it was delicious. It was chewy, bordering on tough, but its kick of heat made me not want to ever stop eating it.
I also loved the crab Rangoon, which I would be more apt to get at a Chinese restaurant. But Thai Diner's were surprisingly good with almost more finely chopped imitation crab than cream cheese and tiny bits of crispy water chestnuts in its stuffing. I also loved the tangy dipping sauce, which had bits of freshly grated ginger throughout.
The clear soup was the perfect palate cleanser before the main course, and it was like no other clear soup I have had at an Asian restaurant. The broth was, indeed, clear and held just a few bits of chicken, scallions, cilantro and thin slices of cucumber. It was lightly seasoned and the cilantro and cucumber were the most dominant flavors, which made it light and refreshing.
The most unique and impressive entrée was the Gang Massaman, a curry dish that arrived in a little white crock with a side of rice, beef, pork, tofu or chicken (which I chose) and was paired with bamboo shoots, onions, green and red peppers, kaffir lime leaves, potatoes and sweet potatoes in this stew made from coconut milk and Massaman curry spices.
The curry was more sweet than spicy as it was ordered mild, and the flavor of the curry itself was not overpowering. The potatoes were a wonderful addition and gave the somewhat light, creamy dish more substance. I will have this dish again.
The Pad Woon Sen was not as heavy as the Massaman, but was just as delicious. It was similar to pad Thai with long shoots of green onion, miniature corn, broccoli, carrot, tomatoes and egg with pork, in this case. But instead of rice noodles, it was made with bean noodles, which were thin and clear. The pork was super tender, the egg clung to pretty much every ingredient and the noodles were spot-on. And it was plenty spicy when ordered “Thai hot.”
I also enjoyed the Rama, which I had with shrimp. These shrimp were big and plump and they were drenched in a thick, heavy peanut sauce along with some green peppers. Underneath was steamed cabbage and spinach. The wilted greens were fantastic with the sauce, which had a profound sweet coconut milk flavor.
The worst entrée was the crispy ginger fish. I should have known I was in trouble when my server had no clue what kind of fish it actually was. It was tilapia, whole tilapia that made it a challenge to eat with so many tiny pin bones.
But what made it even more challenging was the fact that it was overcooked so badly that much of the fish was leathery and inedible. It was covered in a black bean sauce, onions, peppers and pineapple and was also very spicy upon request. I would have left hungry had I not flipped the fish over and was able to eat the meat from the other side, which had soaked in the sauce for a while so it absorbed some moisture and easily flaked off the bone.
A couple of appetizers also fell flat.
The fresh spring rolls were just so-so. A soft and somewhat chewy raw rice paper wrap was rolled around fresh leaf lettuce, carrots, cucumber, sprouts, some tiny cooked salad shrimp and creamy fresh avocado. The sweet chili dipping sauce was perfect for this Thai staple, but there was not enough shrimp and the rolls were not wound tightly enough so what shrimp there was fell out easily.
The fish balls were not worth ordering. The rubbery little seafood balls were lightly coated in batter, but the batter was not crisp, so there was really nothing good about them.
The desserts were worth ordering, but even they had their flaws.
The sweet sticky rice with mango was OK, but it lacked any wow in terms of plating. The ripe mango sat on one side of the plate with a pile of sweet cream-topped sticky rice on the other side. The same boring plate division was seen with the sweet black rice with ice cream. I liked the black rice better, thanks to its nutty flavor, but a few pieces were crunchy and undercooked. I was also turned off when I found a random sliver of paper in the ice cream.
The tapioca pearls were nice, however. In a bowl of sweet milk, these large pearls were joined by crispy bits of taro root, which added a nice textural contrast to the bowl of chewy little nuggets.
The atmosphere at Thai Diner was pretty typical with Christmas lights strewn about and the usual bric-a-brac of Thai photos and artwork. I couldn't help but be startled and then laugh when the Asian mood music, which was obviously being played from a cellphone, was interrupted by an even louder text alert chime.
But I did not laugh at the service inconsistencies. In addition to not knowing what kind of fish the restaurant served, one of my servers just gave a flat, simple, “no” when I inquired whether there were any specialties of the house. He also failed to clear any used dishes from our table after I asked nicely twice. But, in his defense, I also asked one of the owners who came by to see how things were to see whether we could get them removed and she also didn't get it done.
Restaurant: Thai Diner
Address: 5129 Illinois Road
Hours: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Beer and wine
Credit cards: Yes
Kid-friendly: Yes, but no menu
Menu: Crab Rangoon ($4.50), spring rolls ($2.99), fish balls ($3.50), Yum Goon Chaing ($7.50), ginger fish ($12.99), Rama ($9.99), Pad Woon Sen ($7.99), Gang Massaman ($8.99), rice desserts ($3.50)
Rating breakdown: Food: ** (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 0 (1 maximum), service: 0 (1 maximum)
Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).