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Esaan Cafe a worthwhile option for Thai fare

The first day of spring is mere days away, according to the calendar. But frigid rain, snow flurries and stuffy sinuses all suggest that the season for spicy soups still is upon us.

The prospect of sipping steaming, aromatic broth warranted lunch at one of the valley’s newest Thai establishments, Esaan Cafe, opened late last year in Phoenix. Tucked away in a strip mall behind the town’s Jack in the Box, the bright, clean restaurant staffed by friendly, attentive servers brings a worthwhile option for casual fare to the area.

Esaan’s menu shares much in common with other local Thai eateries. The quintessential noodle dish pad Thai and de rigueur curries — red, yellow and green — headline their requisite sections. A dozen stir-fried entrees available with beef, pork, shrimp, chicken or tofu constitute the menu’s remaining entrees, which also include American mainstays of sweet-and-sour and teriyaki preparations.

Nearly every item at Esaan, except appetizers and desserts, is priced at $11 or $12 on the regular menu. The lunch menu’s seven selections each cost $8.50 ($9.50 with shrimp).

Although the special lunch combinations come with a vegetable spring roll, we needed lots of fried finger-foods to appease 4- and 2-year-old dining companions. To the full-size appetizer order of rolls ($6.99), we added steamed pot stickers ($6.99).

Curiously, pad Thai doesn’t number among Esaan’s lunch specials, but my husband wasn’t deterred from ordering enough, with chicken ($10.99), to feed all of us.

Esaan’s version of Thailand’s indispensable tom yum soup ($12.99) is prepared with shrimp. When I requested tofu instead, our server thoughtfully asked if I preferred fried or soft. In soup, definitely the latter.

She also anticipated the kids’ familiarity — or lack of it — with breakable tableware and outfitted us with paper plates and plastic cutlery. Unfortunately, the boys were less enamored than we were of the appetizers, although both would have enjoyed their own sides of sweet chili sauce.

The spring rolls were similar in composition to others at the valley’s Thai restaurants, just fresher and crispier. The pot stickers were tender with a savory filling. Next time, I might try the cream cheese-stuffed shrimp rolls or fried calamari.

Our pad Thai was almost identical to the dish served at Esaan’s counterparts locally. Plenty of chicken augmented the sweet-sauced noodles and bean sprouts with their garnish of shaved carrots and cabbage. I appreciate more egg in my pad Thai than Esaan’s imparted.

The soup, by contrast, was an impressive presentation in the traditional cauldron with butane flames licking the central chimney. Mushrooms, onions, tomatoes, scallions and cilantro leaves floated atop the broth, concealing the chunks of tofu underneath.

While I did identify a kaffir lime leaf, corkscrew of lemongrass and coin of galangal, the soup largely lacked the pungent, herbaceous quality that I typically associate with Thai soups and seemed a tad salty. Underdeveloped flavors, as it turns out, likely indicated that this soup was very freshly made.

Soup, generally speaking, is better the second day, and this one was no exception. Leftovers that I brought home became infused with the aromatics that Esaan’s staff thoughtfully transferred to my takeout container. Spicier, too, this lunch really hit the spot.

Located at 4150 S. Pacific Highway, Esaan Cafe is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Call 541-897-4474.

Tom yum soup at Esaan Cafe in Phoenix. [Photo by Sarah Lemon]