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Red curry with chicken, bamboo shoots, mushrooms, peppers and basilJames Dickinson photos
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The flavors of Thai food are easy to identify: lemon grass and fish sauce, chiles, garlic and coriander, coconut, ginger, and basil. They blend, when prepared well, in a harmony that gives this particular cuisine its soul. Life should be sanuk (fun), and the pleasures of preparing a meal, presenting it beautifully and eating it are a joy in the Thai culture. This culinary Zen has been elusive in Richmond, however.
I've finally found it in an attractive place called Ruang Tong in Stratford Hills Shopping Center. Subtlety is the key to making spicy food pleasant to eat instead of painful. The best Thai food is full of complex layering and nuance, while lesser versions are simply spicy.
My boyfriend, Russ, and I started with two appetizers at our server's suggestion. The Crying Tiger was an ample portion of very thinly sliced, grilled flank steak served with a piquant sauce resounding with lemon grass in a soy-sauce base. For those intimidated by Asian food, this is a good place to start; the dish was tasty, tender and safe. The delicious steamed dumplings looked more like fat, budding flowers than the traditional tied-up bundles I've encountered at other restaurants. Minced pork, shrimp and crunchy water chestnuts formed the a savory center encased in a wonton wrapper.
Entrées include stand-bys such as Pad Thai (theirs comes with shrimp) and a mild sweet-and-sour pork, which Russ thoroughly enjoyed. Sautéed loin was tossed with chopped tomatoes, crunchy cucumbers, onion, pineapple, and green and red peppers in a slightly syrupy sauce that wasn't sticky or cloying sweet.
For me, the real test is the curry. Unlike Indian curries, Thai sauces are thinner and more like spiced soup. Ruang Tong makes four types, with two options for heat. I ordered the red curry with chicken, bamboo shoots, mushrooms, peppers and basil. It was out of this world. At last, Thai heaven in my own backyard.
6790 Forest Hill Ave., 612-8616
Prices: Appetizers and soups $3.50 to $9; lunch entrées $8 to $12; dinner entrées $10 to $14.
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday; 5 to 9:30 p.m. Monday.