Thai Cafe brings the flavor and, if you can handle it, the heat
While you can find a smattering of similar menu offerings at other restaurants around the area, Starved Rock Country really only has one true, dedicated restaurant for Thai cuisine.
Luckily, it's a really good one.
Thai Cafe is a minute's walk from the convergence of the Fox and Illinois rivers, a small, unassuming little restaurant at 610 Columbus St. in historic downtown Ottawa, and it's a dining spot like no other for roughly an hour's drive in any direction.
The minute you enter, you know you're in for something different.
The distinctive aromas of exotic spices and stir-fried vegetables fill the air, and you're surrounded by eye-catching Southeast Asian decorations and an inviting, cozy atmosphere. For the time being with no indoor dining, customers only are allowed in to order (which they also can do by phone ahead of time) and to pick up their food for carryout because of the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic, but even a quick trip in to collect one's food from the owner/operator prepares your taste buds for the unique feast ahead.
The Mystery Diner likes food spicy – and in that capacity, Thai Cafe most definitely delivers – but a number of items on the menu bring plenty of flavor but not too much bite.
Favorite noodle-based dishes, such as pad wun sen and phenomenal pad Thai ($11.95), or Thai-fried rice ($10.95) are high on taste but moderate in spiciness, as are juicy, sautčed entrees such as the ginger, garlic, cashew or sweet and sour ($12.99), which come with the diner's choice of protein – chicken, beef, tofu, vegetables or shrimp.
All are safe for the faint of taste-budded, but Thai Cafe shines best when those flavors are kicked up with a potent punch of heat at the tip of the tongue. In that department, there are an assortment of curry dishes ($13.95), spicy fried rice ($10.95), the perfectly blended spicy noodles ($11.95), a spicy salad ($12.95) and the Mystery Diner's personal favorite, chicken and vegetables swimming in a spicy, chili-basil paste ($12.95).
The Mystery Diner enthusiastically recommends the basil chicken. If you're feeling brave, ask for it a little extra spicy. Don't worry, the white rice which comes on the side helps you handle the heat.
As for appetizers (ranging from $5.95 to $6.95), the soups, crab rangoons, egg rolls, spring rolls and pot stickers are all Mystery Diner approved, though the favorite starter in our household has to be the steamed shrimp dumplings – packed with flavor and a light, extremely satisfying texture in the mouth.
Thai custard or fried bananas make up the dessert menu – but we've never managed to save enough room for that.
Everything ahead of it is just too good.
• The Mystery Diner is an employee at Shaw Media. The diner’s identity is not revealed to restaurant staff when ordering or picking up the food. If the Mystery Diner cannot recommend the establishment, we will not publish a story.