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Wednesday, February 08, 2006 

Sweet Basil: Thai this one out

I'm going to let you in on a well-kept secret: There's Thai food in Fairbanks. Lots of it. In fact, there are as many Thai restaurants as Mexican restaurants in Fairbanks, but that doesn't mean that all Thai food is good. One recent evening, I dragged three friends down South Cushman to visit Sweet Basil and see if it could win a place in our hearts. "Fairbanks has such a richness of Thai restaurants," Gretta commented as we arrived. Having tried most of them, we looked forward to the meal.

Sweet Basil is located in a strip mall with a tattoo parlor, head shop and a $1.39 store. Not exactly an auspicious start, but I've had some fine meals in worse places. We started our meal by sharing an order of fried tofu ($6.95) and yum nuer ($9.95). The tofu was crisp and served with two sauces. The chef had mastered the art of cooking tofu, getting the outside almost crunchy while the inside remained soft. Anyone who eats tofu knows it's rather flavorless, and the sauces helped make the dish palatable. An orange sauce was reminiscent of Chinese duck sauce, while the peanut sauce was a hit – smooth and oily, with a kick of chili for some heat. The large portions were generous for an appetizer.

When I ordered the yum nuer, a sliced beef salad, the waitress asked me if I'd like it spicy. Though I should know better, I piped up, "God, yes!" Here's a hint: Don't order spicy unless you mean it. After a few bites, I made a strangled noise and grabbed for my Thai iced tea ($2), while Gretta inquired, "Mary, are you feeling all right?" Despite the searing pain in my mouth, I couldn't stop eating the dish. The meat was a little tough, but was sliced thin and cooked in a rich, savory sauce, then over a bed of shredded lettuce with an onion-lime dressing. Even though it hurt, Tom and I finished the plate.

Gretta selected tofu mak keur ($9.95) for her entree, and tucked into her dish of eggplant, onions, basil and tofu in a plum sauce. Although the fried tofu appetizer had been crisp, the tofu in this dish had turned soggy, mimicking the soggy eggplant. "It's the nature of eggplant," Jacob said after sampling the dish. "It absorbs." The other vegetables were crisp, but couldn't make up for the soggy eggplant and tofu, putting this dish near the bottom of our list.

Jacob chose pra ram j ($9.95), another fried tofu dish with peanut sauce, broccoli, spinach, cauliflower and cabbage. After sampling both dishes, he declared, "I like mine better than yours." In truth, Jacob's entree was similar to the fried tofu appetizer which we all enjoyed. The crunchy tofu and crisp vegetables made a wonderful foil to the silky peanut sauce. After her disappointing choice, Gretta sampled this dish and sighed with contentment.

Sticking to a time-honored tradition, I opted for a Thai curry. In this case, I selected gaeng ped ($9.95), a red curry with bamboo shoots, peppers, basil and beef. It's hard to go wrong with a curry, and Sweet Basil serves up an excellent one. The coconut milk was slightly sweet, a sign the chef had used a good palm sugar, and the bamboo shoots and peppers were crunchy. I set aside half of the dish to take home, and was happy when the waitress asked if I wanted extra rice for takeout as well.

Tom took advantage of the extra rice to add some to his plate of drunken noodles ($8.95), then defended his right to add rice to noodles. The steaming plate certainly seemed to hold enough food, but he's a big man. Though he had ordered the noodles medium, they seemed spicy and a little strong on the fish sauce.

At the end of the meal, we were sated, and my mouth still burned with the memory of the yum nuer. "This is my favorite Thai restaurant," Tom declared. "It's unfortunate it's so far away." Despite the distance, we agreed to return to Sweet Basil soon. In a city with many Thai restaurants, it's good to find one with great service and terrific food, even if it is on South Cushman.

So I Googled Sweet Basil to get a phone number for work, and I do believe I've stumbled upon a blog of someone I KNOW! Could it be YOU? Mary and last name spelled with an O?

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