Thai Pepper

Cold, winter months call for spicy food, and Thai Pepper's modern Southeast Asian cuisine fits the bill.

I've spent many a quiet, dark weeknight at the restaurant, dining out during the off season in Ashland when the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is closed and most — if not all — the tourists have gone.

Last Saturday night, local families filled Thai Pepper's dining room. Still, a waitperson quickly found a table for a friend and me — two stragglers who walked in without reservations.

Rather than expound the merits of restaurateur Beasy McMillan's dining concepts again, it should be known that after three years working as Thai Pepper's chef, Billy Harto purchased the restaurant from McMillan in 1991.

Harto expanded the menu, and his own abilities with Thai cuisine make the restaurant a standout, in my book. It has garnered local and regional awards for its food and atmosphere and been featured in regional and national food and wine publications, including Bon Appetit.

The restaurant sits adjacent to Bluebird Park at North Main and Water streets, along the creek running through downtown. This is where Harto serves up such appetizers as tiger rolls, Thai crispy spring rolls and chicken satay with peanut sauce (marinated in coconut milk, soy sauce and curry powder); spicy lemon grass soup and coconut chicken soup; and salads such as Thai lime beef with mango chutney.

Look for green, red and yellow curry dishes on the menu and entrees such as Black Tiger Black Pearl, a stir-fry of prawns, garlic, serrano chilies, green bell peppers, mint and sweet oyster sauce; Evil Jungle, coconut beef curry served on a bed of spinach; or chicken in roasted red curry, peanuts and green onion.

One of my favorites is the sweet and spicy crispy fish ($17) made with Icelandic cod battered in egg and flour, flash-fried, tossed with sweet chili sauce and garnished with a generous handful of fresh cilantro.

My dining companion's unchanging palate for the hottest dishes in any season led her to green curry with vegetables and chicken ($15).

We started our meals with spring rolls ($9). A cucumber salad and bowl mounded with steaming, white rice accompanied our entrees.

The sweet chili sauce's subtle heat builds with each bite. It may rate about a five on the one-to-10 scale — hot enough for me. My friend, however, found her meal wanting more and requested a small dish of red chili paste, which she liberally added to her food. I wouldn't suggest this on the first try for anyone unaccustomed to it. Order mild or medium heat. You can always add more.

Thai Pepper's wine list offers a good assortment of regional and Napa Valley wines. I'm a fan of the French Trimbach gewurztraminer, but, alas, it's not available by the glass at the restaurant. The price is $33 for a bottle or $17 for a split.

We settled on Thai Pepper's viognier, bottled with the restaurant's label by Troon Vineyard near Grants Pass. It's available by the glass ($8) or the bottle ($29). This wine has a very crisp finish. I would have preferred a softer, oakier flavor.

Recently, Thai Pepper opened its Satay Bar for lunch. The bar is upstairs on the same level as North Main Street. A lighter menu of satays (skewered meats), soups, salads and entrees are available on the lunch menu.

— Laurie Heuston

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