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Free Range

Currying Favor

A Thai staple continues to please

Photo: Sam Holden, License: N/A

Sam Holden

Thai Arroy

1019 Light St., [410] 385-8587,

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It takes less than an hour for tiny Thai Arroy to fill to capacity. At 6:30 p.m., approximately half of the dozen or so tables are filled with folks sipping glasses of violently red Thai iced tea or trying to bring bulging spring rolls to their mouths without losing shreds of carrot or cabbage. By 7:30, every table is occupied, the decibel level is off the charts, and the line of people waiting for tables overwhelms the small entranceway and snakes into the dining room and around the glass case patrons are warned not to lean against. It is a losing battle.

In its nearly 10 years of existence, Federal Hill’s Thai Arroy has shown remarkable consistency. The menu may feel like it has expanded slightly, and the pretty jewel-toned tablecloths that once covered each table may have disappeared, but little else seems changed.

In some ways, this is a disappointment. The dining room still feels perpetually understaffed, and when staff clears the table and brings the check without being asked and without offering dessert, while a steady stream of customers squeezes its way back to the counter to pick up takeout, it’s understood that serving the many people who want to eat here on any given night is the restaurant’s goal, rather than personal service. That said, interactions with wait staff are pleasant, if brief.

But as the crowds might indicate, the food at Thai Arroy is still reasonable and reliable (the BYOB policy helps keeps tabs down as well). And this is a comfort for the neighborhood folks (as well as customers from across town) who make the restaurant their Thai “local.”

I’ve eaten at Thai Arroy many times over the years, but I hadn’t remembered how good some of the salad-based appetizers are. It’s worth skipping the usual satay or spring rolls in favor of nam sod ($7), a mound of pale ground chicken elevated from potential blandness by a lively blend of ginger, onions, mint, peanuts, and lime juice, or som tum ($8), which features shrimp and many of the same ingredients as the nam sod, but manages to be another dish entirely, shot through with the heat of chilies and the crunch of shredded carrots, green papaya, and green beans. Served on greens, both dishes are visually appealing—they look cool and satisfying on a warm evening—and their blend of tart, salt, and spice feels like it ultimately lowers your body temperature after that initial shot of heat. Chive dumplings ($6) are less attractive, not crispy as promised, and ultimately greasier than they should be, though die-hard dumpling lovers may be able to overlook the grease in favor of the deep green flavor of the chive filling.

One of the challenges of eating at any Thai restaurant is the sheer number of choices—of sautées and curries, noodle- and rice-based dishes. It can make even the most adventuresome eater long for a simple plate of drunken noodles ($12 with beef), which are done very nicely here, a balance of sweet and heat with copious amounts of basil and beef. Gang dang ($10 with tofu), the coconut milk-based red curry, boasts more heat than nuance, and I remember it on past visits being ruddier in color and more robust instead of simply milky and spicy.

Thai Arroy has also always offered a nice selection of seafood, particularly fish dishes featuring fillets and whole specimens of whatever is fresh in the market. Service was so harried the night of our visit that we neglected to find out exactly which fish was in kha prao ($23), a generously sauced dish with snow peas and carrots, (it was white-fleshed and mild—rock, maybe?). The sauce, a fiery amalgam of chilies and green peppercorns (a small branch of which makes a pretty garnish for the dish) keeps the fish from being as crispy as it is described on the menu, and the addition of a handful of fried shrimp (all fish dishes are available with or without shrimp) seems like an afterthought. Nonetheless, it’s a tasty foray away from the curries and the noodles upon which we too often become reliant.

Thai Arroy has been a frequent winner of City Paper’s Best Thai category in the annual Best of Baltimore awards, and I don’t think it’s lost any ground as the years go by. This wasn’t my favorite visit here—the dining room seemed more frantic and less personal than usual—but maybe that’s just the price you pay for success.

Thai Arroy is open Tuesday-Friday for lunch and dinner; dinner only Saturday-Sunday. Dang fine Gang Dang.

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