Location: 1950 Settlers Ridge Center Drive, Robinson. 412-788-1158
Hours: Mon.-Thu. 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sun. noon-10 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, soups and sides $2.50-5; entrees $7-9
Atmosphere: Faux-industrial chic
Foodies are made, not born, as our own humble beginnings attest. Not that our moms weren't good cooks (and of course, it was our moms in the kitchen). They did their best with what they had available. But let's face it: The suburbs in which we grew up were a culinary wasteland compared to places like Settlers Ridge.
Suburban Pittsburgh's newest "lifestyle center" -- that's real-estate speak for a strip mall on steroids -- features an enormous Giant Eagle (with multi-nation food court) and several restaurants ranging from a cowboy-themed steakhouse to Thai Foon, a sleek little Asian number that seems to announce the infiltration of urban-style dining, sort of, in the suburbs.
With its concrete floors, exposed ductwork and a ceiling that soars beyond high into the realm of cavernous, Thai Foon exudes the uncanny vibe of a converted warehouse space shoehorned into a suburban strip. Citrusy paint colors, art-glass pendant lamps and a pair of enclosed round booths -- perfect for intimate confidences or, in our case, secluding a rambunctious family from the peaceable kingdom of fellow diners -- enhance the hip quotient. Only a lighting level to rival that of a surgical theater makes the place feel overexposed.
Billed as "A Taste of Asia," the menu features a smattering of the most famous-in-America dishes from Chinese, Japanese, Korean and various Southeast Asian cuisines. Thai Foon is audacious (or foolish?) enough to serve satay, pho, udon, pad thai, General Tso and its own special stir-fry all under one roof. Could any one kitchen produce credible versions of all these dishes?
Our first appetizer didn't inspire a lot of confidence. So-called Thai dumplings appeared freshly made, but the ground pork filling lacked any particularly Thai inflection, and the dipping sauce tasted like the standard combo of soy and scallion. But soto ayam soup made us sit up and take note of its array of mushrooms -- including button, shiitake and, most intriguingly, noodle-like enoki -- in a simple yet flavorful chicken broth. It reminded Jason of a clear wonton soup base, but without floating islands of grease or the heavy influence of MSG. What made the soto ayam broth memorable was just enough savor to support the mushrooms and saturate the accompanying cubes of tofu with flavor.
From Thai Foon's "Signature Dishes" list, Angelique chose curry, despite some misgivings due to the fact that the distinctive green, yellow and red curries of Thailand had been consolidated into one dish on Thai Foon's menu. Diners pick the curry color (determined by chili color) and protein (chicken, beef, or shrimp, in ascending order of expense); the coconut-milk base and vegetable array are the same.
But the dish worked because the kitchen was judicious with the ingredients it chose: onion, green bell pepper, pineapple and the indispensable seasonings of Thai cooking. The red onions were lightly cooked to retain a little of their crunch and pungency, while the bell peppers were surprisingly juicy, the pineapple sweet, and the chicken moist and tender, all in a coconut-green chili sauce heady with peppery basil, lemony cilantro and tangy lime.
Spicy basil, another Thai restaurant standard, achieved similar success with even fewer ingredients, just chicken and tender-firm bamboo shoots in a light brown sauce that balanced aromatic herbs with assertive chili spice.
Jap chap, a Korean noodle dish based on supposedly fat-fighting yam noodles, had a simpler flavor profile than the traditional sweet-sour-salty-spicy quartet of Thai cuisine. Yet it built a light-but-substantial dish around those thin, slightly firm noodles, plenty of vegetables, egg, shrimp (with the tails helpfully removed) and more of those just-sautéed onions. This was the kind of preparation that can make a satisfying side as well as a rich main dish.
An item expressly offered as a side, crispy spinach, featured leaves lightly seasoned and fried to the crisp, brittle texture of tissue paper. Even slightly oversalted, we found them addictive. In our opinion, this is a dish that is under-represented on local Asian menus. In fact, we're surprised some enterprising snack-food purveyor hasn't already packaged this Thai treat as a healthier alternative to potato chips.
Take note: When we ordered our entrees at Thai Foon, we weren't asked how spicy we'd like them, which led us to believe that the kitchen's standard was a mild one. We were pleasantly surprised the opposite was true. Two of the three entrees we ordered packed significant heat, and even the primarily soy-flavored sauce of the jap chap had some kick. While we found this refreshing -- like learning that Grandma spikes the punchbowl -- we would caution those with delicate palates to request the kitchen dial back the chilies.
With its pan-Asian approach, Thai Foon stops short of delving into the sophisticated flavor profiles of Asian food prepared by experts in its individual cuisines. But it sure spices up Settlers Ridge.