Location: 321 South Ave., Verona. 412-828-0339
Hours: Tue.-Thu. 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 11:30 a.m.-2:30 and 5-10 p.m.; Sun.-Mon. 4-9 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, soups and salads $4-7; entrees $9-12
Fare: Authentic Thai
Atmosphere: Intimate Asian
Smoking: None Permitted
It's an old cliché that the best ethnic food can be found in little, out-of-the-way places. But it's rapidly becoming a false cliché, as cuisines that were obscure a couple of decades ago make the move to haute cuisine, complete with star chefs and designer dining rooms.
But it's still a great kitchen, not stylish décor or a trendy address, that makes a great restaurant. Nicky's -- a little, out-of-the-way place -- may just be the best Thai food we've had in the Western hemisphere. Located in a storefront just off the main drag of the little riverfront town of Verona, Nicky's is much nicer than the stereotypical "hole in the wall." Its deep, narrow dining room is dressed up with white tablecloths, a sophisticated olive-and-purple color scheme, and minimalist blades of tropical foliage in place of the usual bud vases. Still, going there feels more like discovering a cozy neighborhood place than arriving at a fashionable bistro.
The menu is moderate in length and includes the familiar Thai options along with a number of chef's specials that are truly special, such as gaprow lad kao (a variety of Thai stir-fry) and salmon mango curry.
From the appetizer list, we chose steamed dumplings, which were shumai-style pouches, not pierogi-style half-moons, their delicate wrappers gathered at the tops like little drawstring purses. Within was a pork filling so moist and finely ground, it had almost the character of a paste. With an intensely gingery flavor, and a sauce that perfectly married sweet and sour, these were among the best Asian dumplings we recall tasting.
A generous portion of tom yum soup arrived next, steaming and aromatic in an appealing comma-shaped bowl. The plenteous chicken and mushrooms were tender, while the onion was still crunchy, and tomato added bright, fresh flavor to a hot -- in both meanings of the word -- broth that awakened the senses.
On one of -- we hoped -- the last nights of wintry weather this year, Angelique ordered massaman curry, a hearty, stick-to-your-ribs, stewlike dish of beef, peanuts and potatoes. Smooth and thickened with peanut butter, the broth was both sweet and savory, but with the intense flavors of a well-seasoned curry. The ingredients provided soft, chewy and crunchy textures in every bite.
Chicken black came in a rum sauce, raising the question: Do they cook with alcohol in Thailand? If they don't, they should. Nicky's use of it transformed what looked like a generic Asian brown sauce into a sweet, richly flavored base for tender chicken, earthy shiitake slices and handfuls of zingy ginger matchsticks.
Finally, we can never resist pad Thai. We were glad we didn't: Nicky's had such depth of that distinctive sweet-sour-salty pad Thai flavor that Jason thought it must be slathered in sauce. But an examination of the bottom of the bowl revealed nothing but well-coated noodles. The shrimp were beautifully cooked to their peak of fresh, briny flavor. The peanuts and bean sprouts grounded the dish and added crunch. And the noodles themselves (a bit narrower than usual) were tender without mushiness.
If we've overused the word "intense" in this review, please forgive us. It's the overwhelming impression that every dish at Nicky's gave: more flavor, and more flavors than we're used to, even at Thai restaurants that we love. And all this without overwhelming the native tastes of the fresh ingredients or creating clashing flavors. Verona, it turns out, is the next best thing to Thailand. And, happily, a heck of a lot closer for the return visits we're sure to make.