Ban Thai, at 340 N. Charles St., is a Baltimore stalwart. I've never left the restaurant dissatisfied with anything, and always felt as if I've had a treat that's taken me out of my rut, which is ironic because I've been in a Ban Thai rut for years. In at least two dozen visits, only once have I ordered anything but their pad Thai.
12:01 p.m. We enter Ban Thai and are greeted by gilded frames and lavish color that surround a subtly utilitarian dining room finished at the far end with a brief, glittering bar at which I don't believe I've ever seen a customer seated. We're ensconced in a booth, the closest thing to cozy that Ban Thai offers. My favorite spots are the window tables, because they offer a redoubt from which to watch the amazing foot traffic along Charles, should the conversation dry up … not that it ever does.
12:03 p.m. We order appetizers. Had we been minding the time, we'd have ordered our entrees immediately. But both of us have Ban Thai favorites and we thought ordering those would make our job too easy and maybe skew the review. So we decided to take some time to scour the menu for something different.
12:11 p.m. The appetizers arrive. We ordered the fried vegetable dumplings at $4.95 and the curried fish cakes at $6.75.
The pasty rice-noodle dumpling overwhelmed the lush, dark veggie filling, which I took to be collards or spinach but there wasn't enough of it for my buds to get a definitive sample. No matter: the spiced-up soy dipping sauce was the star, reducing the dumpling to a mere conveyance.
The texture of the fish cakes also surprised us. Their consistency was similar to well-cooked shrimp and put us in mind of pork sausage patties. The accompanying sauce was sort of a chutney of peanuts, peppers and cucumbers. The medley of crunchy, hot and light was splendid, a deft partner for the stout and savory cakes.
12:32 p.m. Our entrees arrive. I ordered the ka prow with pork for $13.50. My dining companion went for the kee mao talay, which we referred to as No. 73, a mixed seafood noodle dish that we both wanted to order. My friend won the toss.
Both our entrees featured the same two dominant sensations: An absolute tribute to basil; and a rich, meaty celebration of pepper that, like wine, changed character with every ingredient it clung to.
The consistency of the pork in my dish was neither tough nor melt-away tender but, in all, rather nondescript. It was rescued by crisp green beans, vibrant basil and lush, peppery broth that could make a Swanson meatloaf sing.
My friend's noodle dish, which I ate close to half of, was also snatched from relative mediocrity by a lusty licorice basil and pepper duet. The basil drenched almost every bite while the peppers added a robust harmony that teamed with the just perceptible sweetness of the noodles. The shrimp, calamari, scallops and mussels played a timid second fiddle but were still refreshing counterpoints to the bombastic spices.
1 p.m. We finished and received our cartons of leftover lunch. Our black-clad servers were warm and welcoming, attentive and prompt. And we didn't feel like we lingered over the meal, though we did take some time checking the menu pages. Maybe that's why the meal burned nearly an hour. Still, I don't think Ban Thai's a bad bet for diners on a tight schedule, especially when they know what they want. I'm going back to the pad Thai.
If you haven't tried it and like heat, ask for Ban Thai's spice tray. The tray presents four distinct flavors and heat levels that redraw cooler dishes like the pad Thai and allow you to control the fire, if you're not open to letting the kitchen call the shots. For the more adventurous, I'd rate Ban Thai's pepper generous but gentle — unless you've specifically requested more heat.
Where: 340 N. Charles St.
Lunch hours: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays
Lunch entrees: $7.50-$14
[Key: ✭✭✭✭ Outstanding; ✭✭✭: Good; ✭✭: Fair or Uneven; ✭: Poor]
Dining time 59 minutes