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Cheap Eats

Contrasts in Thai flavors

(Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)
By Ann Luisa Cortissoz
Globe Correspondent / April 29, 2009

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Thai food celebrates contrasts - sweet, sour, salty, spicy. At the Similans, across from the Galleria Mall in East Cambridge, the contrasts start well before the food arrives. The restaurant's neighborhood is industrial, commercial, and not at all scenic. Pass the large tropical fish tank inside the four-year-old restaurant and you find yourself in a serene, high-ceiling space that feels continents away from First Street.

On several gloomy, rainy visits recently the Thai staff is unfailingly pleasant, and the dining room is filled with heady aromas of grilling seafood, coconut, curry. The menu at the Similans, sister restaurant to Brown Sugar Cafe in Boston, is extensive, and there's an emphasis on fresh ingredients. Shrimp de emerald ($15.95), which is stir-fried in a tingly ginger sauce, is served with lots of mushrooms, strips of red pepper, and broccoli cooked to a bright green color and a satisfying crispness. Chunks of potato and butternut squash crowd chicken in a masaman curry ($11.95) that perfectly balances sweetness from coconut milk with spiciness from the curry.

Tender slices of pork with chili sauce share the plate with crisp, lemony green beans in kow rad moo pad prik king ($8.95) and green beans, bamboo shoots, tomatoes, basil leaves, and hot peppers are heaped on top of wide rice noodles in spicy drunken noodles with tofu ($10.95). Savory chicken pad see ew ($10.95) brims with broccoli and carrots over stir-fried wide rice noodles. Basil pad thai ($9.95) adds a bright, pungent undertone of herbiness to the popular rice noodle and egg dish.

Appetizers don't highlight vegetables the way the entrees do. Plump chive dumplings ($6.95), pillows of dough filled with greens, are served with a gingery soy dipping sauce. Cozy shrimp ($6.95) look cute and snug wrapped in spring rolls and fried. They're served with a mild, earthy turnip sauce. Tod mun ($6.95), minced shrimp and spices fried into patties and served with cucumber sauce, has a wonderful flavor, but a weird, spongy texture.

The Similans, named for a group of islands off Thailand, offers many dessert options, including Thai coffee custard ($5.50) and sweet sticky rice with mango ($7.95). Fried bananas ($4.95), slices of the fruit in crisp spring roll wrappers, are served with a honey sauce and a mountain of not-too-sweet whipped cream. A perfect combination, if only the bananas hadn't been so green. Next time, it'll be the tempting coffee custard.

Like a great vacation destination, you leave the Similans wondering when you'll get to go back.