Jason has been a Strip regular for so long that he can remember when a lone Chinese parlor offered the only sit-down Asian food to be had there. But, fortunately, restaurant options have kept pace as the neighborhood around Penn and Smallman has evolved from wholesale produce district to Saturday market to foodie paradise. The main drag is now bookended by Vietnamese restaurants, and the center is held by Little Bangkok.
The city's newest Thai restaurant is located in half of the old Sunseri's building — which, as other longtime Strip shoppers may recall, had a concrete floor several feet above the sidewalk. Plenteous jackhammering has carved out a deep, narrow, two-level dining space with lofty ceilings, a toasted-spice color scheme and intricate Thai woodcarvings adding texture and culture to the walls. If the lighting is a bit harsh (possibly overcompensating for the double-height space), the overall atmosphere is urbane and attractive. Sitting on the raised area in the back, we enjoyed the catbird's seat, with a view of the dining floor below as well as the sidewalk outside the storefront windows.
The menu is in standard format — broken down into noodles, curries and specialties. But we were intrigued by a larger-than-usual selection of unfamiliar dishes. There were enough new things to try that we mostly forewent our standards, limiting ourselves to our beloved larb (here called labb) salad and Angelique's all-time favorite, panang curry.
Well, those and a guilty, inauthentic pleasure: crab Rangoon. Little Bangkok doesn't call it that, but the succulent combination of crab and cream cheese was the same. What really caught our eye was the promise of freshly fried wontons in place of the factory-formed packets we've had elsewhere. And indeed, the wontons were light and crisp and fluffy. They were the chief pleasure of this dish, in which the crab was so overwhelmed by the cream cheese as to be nearly undetectable.
Labb was made with hand-minced chicken, a step up in texture and authenticity from the ground chicken that's ubiquitous in Pittsburgh. The variously sized bits were much meatier and more satisfying than crumbled meat usually is, and their savor was enhanced by the heady, herbal notes of mint and Thai basil. Onion added zing, and our only quibble was that we could have used more cool, juicy lettuce to counter the dressing's blazing heat.
The care with which the labb had evidently been prepared raised our expectations for our entrees. But when they arrived, Jason had a brief flashback to that old Chinese place of yore, its every dish seemingly drowned in the same generic brown sauce. Of our four entrée dishes at Little Bangkok, two — pad see eil and pad kra tiem — appeared to share a dull, pale brown sauce that, even if it was not actually identical, tasted nearly so.
The food was fresh and tasty, but the dishes we ordered seemed to lack the vibrant colors and vivid interplay of salty, sweet, sour and savory flavors that we associate with our favorite Thai cooking. Pad see eil was a simple dish of broad noodles stir-fried in a soy-based sauce with broccoli florets, which were suitably tender-crisp. Pad kra tiem was described as being seasoned with garlic and pepper, but this sauce was hard to distinguish from the one used in see eil. The dish did include excellent tofu: It was firm enough to hold its own when tossed with other ingredients, but delicate enough to become almost soaked through with sauce, amending its native bland flavor.
Pad kra pow featured more of the hand-minced chicken we had so enjoyed in the labb, this time stir-fried with sweet bell peppers and aromatic basil, and served over rice; the whole dish was topped with a sunny-side-up fried egg. Though the basil sauce was subtle, it helped save the dish from being more-or-less plain fried rice. The egg, whose slightly runny yolk escaped into the rice, also added richness to the bites that contained it. Panang curry was mild, as is typical for this variety of curry, and included beef that was on the tough side. Asian eggplant and crunchy bamboo shoots helped to redeem this dish's texture, while adding some complexity to its flavor.
Little Bangkok brings Thai cooking to the Strip's increasingly diverse restaurant row, offering choices not available at nearby Thai restaurants. Some of our dishes lacked the distinctive flavors we prefer, but the venue might be a good choice for those cowed by Thai cuisine's generally spicy reputation.