Sometimes the best flavors pop up in the least likely places — such as a strip mall on Route 175 near Fort Meade.
That's where Bangkok Kitchen has done business for nearly 20 years. From the outside, the shopping center has seen better days. But don't let that stop you. Bangkok Kitchen's excellent Thai food is much more memorable than the building's rundown exterior would indicate.
Serious foodies will recognize the area, too. Just down the street, Grace Garden has been making adventurous Chinese-food lovers drool for years. Bangkok Kitchen is not as well known, but it's also a solid destination for food enthusiasts.
Scene & decor Bangkok Kitchen might not look like much from the outside, but inside it is clean and serene, with light-green walls decorated with Buddhas and oversized photographs of food.
The restaurant's parking is in the back and, though it's not clearly marked, many diners enter through the back door (the front, though a longer walk from the lot, is easier to find for first-timers).
When we arrived, around 6:30 on a Wednesday night, the restaurant was moderately busy with diners who were taking their food very seriously. As we sat, a man behind the bar smiled to say hello — and told us that we should use the back door next time. Right away, we felt welcome.
Appetizer We started with larb gai ($6.95) and yum woon sen ($7.95), two classic Thai salads. Bangkok Kitchen's versions of both rely heavily on ground chicken.
In the larb gai, the chicken was well-seasoned and tossed with red onions, scallions and cilantro. Yum woon sen also mixed the chicken with onions but added clear noodles, shrimp and a healthy squeeze of lime juice. Both were spicy but not intolerable.
Despite their similar ingredients and heat profiles, the salads each had individual, and very likable, flavors and textures. The larb gai was warmer and more savory while the yum woon sen, with its citrusy flavor and slippery glass noodles, was brighter and fun.
Entrees Panang curry ($12.95), red coconut curry sauce tossed with shrimp, carrots, green beans and red peppers, was nicely balanced between sweet and spicy, with crisp vegetables and shrimp cooked just until done.
It didn't stray from the classic features of the dish, and it conveyed those tastes well. We've eaten a lot of panang curries; this one was a favorite. Even after we'd eaten the shrimp and vegetables, we continued to gorge ourselves on rice soaked in the sauce, just for the flavor.
The curry was lovely but the crispy duck was the best dish we ate all night. Honey-roasted then crisped in a pan with basil and chili peppers, the duck was sweet and hot and addictive. We were still talking about it days later.
Texturally, the duck was a fantastic dish. The basil offered both crunch and flavor, the chilies sizzled our tongues and the duck itself was cooked so nicely. Each bite was tender inside with crispy skin.
We ordered everything, from the salads to the duck, with medium heat and that's what was delivered. We were thankful for big bowls of white rice, but nothing we ate was so hot that the spice overwhelmed the flavor.
Drinks Bottles of Thailand's bright, drinkable lager, Singha ($3.95), were the coldest beers we've had in a long time. Between the temperature and the refreshing, light taste, the beers neutralized even the spiciest bites.
Dessert On our waiter's recommendation, we opted for the sticky rice and mango ($4.50), a standard but likable interpretation of the classic Asian dessert. For the dish to be good, the mango must be very ripe, and this one was.
Service Our young waiter was friendly, efficient and impressively mannerly. He was very capable of making recommendations, too: We overheard him chatting with diners at another table who were visiting the restaurant for the first time. He handled their knowledgeable questions, making suggestions and chatting comfortably. No surprise, since Bangkok Kitchen has been doing what it does for nearly two decades. We hope it keeps up the good work for at least two more.
Back story: Located in an inauspicious strip mall near Fort Meade for nearly 20 years, Bangkok Kitchen has been a local favorite for its classic and excellent interpretations of Thai food.
Parking: Lot in rear
Signature dish: Bangkok Kitchen's crispy duck is the kind of dish that food lovers will dream about for days after eating. Honey-roasted duck, chopped into bite-sized pieces and stir-fried until crispy, is tossed with crisped basil and fiery hot chili peppers, making a dish that's spicy, sweet and fabulous.
Contact: 410-674-6812; bangkokkitchen.webs.com
Open: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday; 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday
Credit cards: All major
Bottom line: An off-the-beaten-path location specializing in classic Thai food done right and served with a friendly smile.