We seem to be living in a culture where, as Andre Agassi proclaimed in those Canon Rebel camera commercials, “image is everything.” That seems especially true of our contemporary restaurants, where the food so often takes a back seat to the architecture. We’re surrounded by faux Little Italy restaurants, faux Mexican taquerias, faux French bistros and faux Asian eateries. We’re more interested, it would seem, in having restaurants that look like the real thing than in eating food that tastes like the real thing. It’s the Disneyfication of our culinary culture—a dumb-it-down approach to cuisine that has much more to do with marketing than with cooking. Which is how we arrive at Thaifoon.
The creation of owner Randy Schoch, The Gateway’s Thaifoon “Taste of Asia” restaurant is the fourth Thaifoon. The first opened in Scottsdale, Ariz., followed by two more in Southern California. And the first thing you should probably know about Thaifoon is, despite what the clever name might suggest, it’s definitely not a Thai restaurant. Anyone in the hunt for authentic Thai cuisine will be very disappointed in Thaifoon. What Thaifoon really is is a restaurant in the neo-Asian style of P.F. Chang’s. If you like P.F. Chang’s, then you’ll probably like Thaifoon.
If, on the other hand, you prefer your Asian cuisine more authentic and less diluted, then you’ll probably scratch your head and wonder about restaurants like P.F. Chang’s and Thaifoon—as I do—why? That is, why would anyone want to pay substantially more per dish at a restaurant like Thaifoon than they would at a more traditional Asian restaurant (Hong Kong Tea House, Mandarin, Bangkok Thai, Lemon Grass, Monsoon Thai and Thai Siam come to mind) that serves better food?
Maybe it’s the ambiance. Thaifoon has it in spades. The spare-no-expense interior is a meld of contemporary design with splashes of Asian feng shui that include an 8-foot bamboo wall and a 40-foot glass waterfall that serves to separate the kitchen from the dining room. Thaifoon is, without a doubt, impressive to the eye.
But somehow the service and the food at Thaifoon just don’t stand up to the flash and sizzle of the eye-popping dÃ©cor. That is a trait that’s not unique to Thaifoon, by the way. Hiring architects, designers and decorators to create impressive restaurant spaces these days is not difficult or unusual. Creating cuisine and a more-than-just-competent service staff to enhance the experience of dining in such a stunning setting, is.
Service at Thaifoon is disappointing, at best. Although servers are trained—much as the ones at P.F. Chang’s—to deliver a scripted rap about the restaurant’s menu and methods, asking a question that bumps them off their canned soliloquy most often results in puzzled looks. “I’m not sure,” is a common answer to questions like “Where do you get your ahi tuna?” or “Is the Firecracker Chicken deep-fried or sautÃ©ed?” Again, if you like the type of generic, largely uninformed and unimpressive service that you find at chain restaurants like T.G.I. Fridays, Applebee’s and International House of Pancakes, then you’ll have no problem with the less-than-stellar service at Thaifoon.
Like table service at Thaifoon, the menu is wildly inconsistent. There are good and even great dishes, and there are dishes that are totally disappointing. The Black Orchid ahi tuna ($9.99) was, as advertised, blackened and seared on the outside and rare inside, sliced and served with an uninteresting but adequate soy-mustard sauce. All in all, the tuna was a good enough appetizer, although at $10 probably not one I’d order again. I’d certainly never again order Thaifoon’s broccoli and beef ($13.99) which, although the beef was very tender, was an otherwise bland and completely forgettable dish. It’s a mystery how so little flavor could have been incorporated into Thaifoon’s beef and broccoli. You’d be better off ordering this dish at a Panda Express.
On the other hand, a Thaifoon dish called Evil Jungle Princess with Shrimp was very good. It was a large bowl (most dishes at Thaifoon are served “family style” for sharing) of stir-fried shrimp, long beans and an assortment of other vegetables in a commendable Thai red curry with fresh mint, basil and peanut chili. Given how true to tradition this Thai dish was, I could only shake my head in bewilderment at how poor Thaifoon’s rendition of pad Thai ($13.99) was. The steep price notwithstanding, the overcooked noodles and out-of-balance flavors of the pad Thai at Thaifoon meant that all but a couple of forkfuls went into the trash. No one at my table even wanted to take home the leftovers. Ditto the Firecracker Fish, which was breaded and deep-fried mahi mahi with a red chili-soy sauce so overpowering that I may as well have been eating flounder, pork or veal.
Maybe the flash and sizzle of Thaifoon is best depicted by the crab cake appetizer ($7.99). For $8, what you get is a single crab cake resting upon a mountain of shredded veggies. It’s a nice looking dish, but when you get right down to it you’re paying a steep premium for an attractive pile of vegetable hash.
Indeed, the prices at Thaifoon sneak up on you. Dinner for two with a couple appetizers, entrees, wine and tip can quickly add up to $80-$90. It doesn’t help that, for example, Geyser Peak Sauvignon Blanc, which sells for $8.95 per bottle in Utah, goes for $6.50 per glass at Thaifoon. Ouch! And although Thaifoon’s management is smart enough to bring in the John Flanders Trio on occasional weeknights to provide live jazz, I suppose the best way to sum up my overall Thaifoon impression is: Thaifooey.
THAIFOON, 7 N. 400 West, (The Gateway), 801-456-THAI (8424), Open daily for lunch and dinner