Munch goes to Smiling Banana Leaf
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OK, Munch admits. Munch is no James Beard. Munch does not know what kind of Merlot to pair with your caviar-topped filet mignon. But Munch knows where to get the most tastiness and calories for your buck in the 'Burgh, Munch knows all the lyrics to every Donnie Iris song, Munch can name every member of the Steel Curtain, and Munch knows a Pittsburgh salad.
A Pittsburgh salad is not a salad per se. Munch would guess that those arugula-munching vegetarians who occasionally land in our fair city for graduate school would probably wonder "What is that giant pile of meat, french fries and cheese?" Well, there is iceberg lettuce, that crunchy vacuum of nutritional value, underneath all that greasy goodness, but for it really to be a Pittsburgh salad, there can be no green vegetables -- barring maybe a pepperoncini or two -- actually visible.
As Munch and Friends of Munch found out at Smiling Banana Leaf, a tiny but bright Thai joint in Highland Park, the Thai also have their own signature salad and it contains -- sit down for this -- NO MEAT. Our waitress explained the green papaya salad, Som Tum, was the most popular dish in Thailand, along with Pad Thai.
Munch was skeptical. Mexican War Streets Friend of Munch, who is partial to Nicky's Thai Kitchen, cast a suspicious eye as well. New Homeowner Friend of Munch, exhausted from a week of getting all Bob Vila on her three-story Lawrenceville domicile, was too discombobulated from ripping out drywall to comment.
The Som Tum ($7) came out first, and instead of a giant mound of meat, cheese and potatoes there were long, elegant strands of opaque white papaya, green beans and tiny red cherry tomato halves, topping a bed of fresh spring greens. It was served alongside a tiny pillow of sticky rice.
The salad was yummy and unexpectedly filling. Tossed with a dressing of peanut juice balanced with something sweet, sour and citrusy (Munch couldn't say what it was, but it was delicious), it brought a chorus of "mmmm"s to the table. It was the perfect accompaniment to an order of crunchy shrimp fried spring rolls ($4), which were whole pieces of shrimp wrapped up and deep fried.
NHFOM, who is actually pescetarian (don't let the tool belt fool you), ordered up a steamy bowl of the Rad Na, a stew of noodles, meat (she did tofu) and vegetables in a light brown gravy. The noodles came out thick and slippery, swimming in a thin, salty, sweet, spicy and tangy sauce that was thin enough for it to qualify as a soup.
"It's like," said NHFOM, pausing pensively, or perhaps to take a short nap, "the most perfect. Stew. Ever."
Munch can vouch. It was deeply satisfying, the perfect remedy for an unexpectedly cold spring day or from a day of ripping out dropped ceilings.
MWSFOM, who orders her Pad Se Ew Noodles from Nicky's Thai Kitchen weekly, wondered if the ones here could measure up. She ordered the Pad Se Ew beef ($6.95) at a spice level five, which she said turned out to be a little mild for her liking. Indeed, Munch, whose tongue could probably withstand napalm, didn't sense much spice at all. Still, the dish was delicious. The noodles were not too greasy and were perfectly sauced.
Munch's dish came out last, the Thai Fried Rice ($6.95) with pork. Glistening with grease, the rice was tossed with fried Thai basil, onions, thin slices of pork and chilies. At spice level eight, it was just the right amount of kick, and with all the rice's tasty accompaniments, it was certainly enough for a meal.
The dishes all came out at different times, and Munch suspects this is because the restaurant's cramped kitchen can only accommodate one (very busy) cook. But the restaurant -- which has the dimensions of a hole-in-the-wall but the ambience of someplace more upscale -- is the perfect venue for a long, leisurely and addictively delicious lunch. And the Som Tum is the perfect starter because, unlike the Pittsburgh salad, it won't leave you reaching for some Tums. (But that joke might. Sorry!)
First Published April 1, 2010 12:00 am