Having been passionate about Thai food for almost 20 years, and an equally passionate amateur Thai cook for nearly as long, there are few things which make me less excited than “there’s a new Thai place opening in Riga’s Old Town!” If you’ve been following my work at Foodinriga.com, it should be abundantly clear to you that Riga is a place with absolutely zero passion for the fiery temperament of Asian food in general and Thai food in particular. Therefore, rumours about a new Thai place is about as exciting to me as a 4th Hobbit movie. So when I started snooping around, trying to find information about the new endeavor called Thai Station, it didn’t take long before I wanted to find a brick wall and bash my head against it. Why’s that? Well, how about this, for starters:
”Coming to Riga to look for Thai chefs is like going to Mozambique to look for great NHL prospects”
- I found out that the owner already runs a chain of Thai places in Germany called Thai Express. A friend of mine living there described it as “doing to Thai cuisine what Pizza Hut is doing to Italian cuisine”, and Thai people have written plenty of really negative reviews online.
- Before it opened, I went to scout out the location, and found a sign saying that they are looking for chefs. I mean… Coming to Riga to look for Thai chefs is like going to Mozambique to look for great NHL prospects*.
- On my first visit to Thai Station, one of the first things the waiter tells me is “Latvians don’t like spicy food.”
Seriously. This did not bode well. But I am a professional, after all, and I have had pleasant surprises in the past, so I decided to keep an open mind.
Despite expecting another fast food joint (after all, the German sister restaurants are called Thai Express), Thai Station turned out to be a proper restaurant, with a big indoors for many guests and a small patio out front. The interior looks clean and sober, but it’s not very Thai nor inspired, and it’s clearly not meant to be this “miniature Thailand” which some restaurants are going for in other countries. The quite standard menu is larger than what you would find at a fast food/take away place, so in theory you should be able to find something to your liking. Also, the prices are quite fast-foody, so you can easily go here to see if Thai Station is something for you.
”authentic thai food is spicy. viciously so”
If you're familiar with Thai food, you're probably also familiar with the Thai names of various dishes. Therefore, the menu at Thai Station, written mostly in English, caused a bit of confusion when me and my friends browsed the dishes. Looking for staple Thai dishes like “gai pad med mamuang” or “gaeng panang gai”, we came up empty. Instead, if you have a favorite dish, you have to try to figure out which of the English descriptions matches that dish.
A word about Thai food: even though not all Thai dishes will rip your head off, authentic Thai food is spicy. Viciously so. Hence, when Thai Station’s waiter said that “Latvian people don’t like spicy food”, he might just as well have said “we don’t serve authentic Thai food”. And maybe that was his intention, because Thai Station don’t serve authentic Thai. This is not only because of the almost complete lack of spiciness (even repeatedly asking for extra spicy food will still have you fishing up all the small chilies from the little bowl of fish sauce and chili on your table), often the food is also quite bland. And proper Thai is anything but. Loosely translated from a great old Thai cookbook I have: “The Thai cuisine is an attack on the senses, it’s like sensious fireworks. The Thai dinner table is ablaze with colors and smells. This is food to sweat over, to dive into with sensual pleasure and to let splash on the table.” This description is very far from what you’ll find at Thai Station. The coconut based dishes contain too little curry paste (or maybe it’s just very weak?) and too little fish sauce for saltiness. The stir-fries contain too little oyster sauce (which gives many non-coconut dishes their richness), and they are for some reason drowning in huge amounts of brothy soup, so a lot of the flavor is just swimming around on your plate and doesn’t stick to your meat and vegetables. Thai stir-fries are not supposed to be this runny, but much more firm and potent to the taste.
Also, I know that traditionally, meat functions more like flavoring than as the main ingredient in many dishes, but this is often for financial reasons: in Thailand, certain meat is expensive. At a western Thai restaurant, though, you could easily up the amount of protein in a dish. For example, Thai Station’s fried shrimp with chili and basil (if my taste buds haven’t gone on vacation, it’s sweet basil, not holy basil) only contained a few small shrimp. In the same fashion, many of the other dishes are dominated by vegetables, such as an abundance of green beans. Adjust the ratio of protein/veggies, and I will be a much happier man. However, I must admit that I really liked the dipping sauce that came with the meat dumplings. Om nom nom.
”thai station suffers from what i feel is frustratingly unfulfilled potential”
As for the service, I have mostly been very happy with Thai Station. The waiting staff is very friendly, and for the most part you get your orders very quickly. At one occasion, though, we had to wait forever for our food. We were told later that this was because of a large group of dinner guests who got there before us. Sure, this stuff happens, but when it does, warn your next guests before they order so that they will have a choice to either stay and wait or come back some other time.
As much as I would have hoped to sum this up another way, Thai Station suffers from what I feel is frustratingly unfulfilled potential. It feels like they are cooking like they do "because we assume that this is what Latvians want". Maybe it’s what Latvians think that they want, but it sure isn’t what I want. Why not cook as you would for Thai people, and tell the Latvian guests that “you can have it less spicy/flavorful if you want, please let us know when you order”? I will probably go back to Thai Station again in the future, if only to check if they have read this review and perhaps changed their philosophy, but for now, I still feel that the best Thai food in Riga is made by yours truly in my own kitchen.
* fortunately, they later changed it to “looking for other staff”, and now they actually have Thai chefs.