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New Thai restaurant pours on the charm

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Panang curry prominently features the flavor of kaffir lime leaves at Phoenix’s Charm Thai Kitchen [Sarah Lemon/Mail Tribune]
Green papaya salad is dressed with lime juice, chiles, palm sugar and fish sauce at Charm Thai Kitchen in Phoenix. [Sarah Lemon/Mail Tribune]
“Hoy jor” is a deep-fried dish that combines meat, seafood and tofu at Charm Thai Kitchen in Phoenix. [Sarah Lemon/Mail Tribune]
Rice vermicelli are simmered as “boat noodles” at Charm Thai Kitchen in Phoenix. [Sarah Lemon/Mail Tribune]
“Boat noodles” come with a choice of pork, pictured, or beef at Charm Thai Kitchen in Phoenix. [Sarah Lemon/Mail Tribune]

Diners expecting Southern Oregon’s standard Thai fare will find themselves utterly charmed by one of Phoenix’s newest restaurants.

Charm Thai Kitchen enjoys a steady following less than six months after opening at The Shoppes at Exit 24. Charm’s co-owners, who spent years in Los Angeles, conjure a sensibility of bigger cities with their clean, modern decor. Bold, compelling flavors distinguish their recipes from others in the region.

Charm’s reputation for authenticity comes through in an October episode of the PBS series “All Across Oregon,” hosted by Vinny DiCostanzo. The show may have played a role in Charm’s packed dining room the weekday my partner and I visited. But to be fair, I fielded an enthusiastic reader’s recommendation prior to the episode airing. Thanks, Barbara!

So while this column has taken a more frequent look than usual at Southeast Asian cuisines this fall, I’m almost always game for more garlic, ginger and chiles, particularly during cold and flu season. Alongside those more common spices, star anise and kaffir lime leaves — spiked with fish sauce and citrus juice — tantalized our taste buds from the first bite.

To complement curries, pad Thai and stir-fries, Charm serves a few dishes that are harder to come by locally and at least one I’d never seen before. “Som tam Thai” — green papaya salad ($13) — is a favorite, which Charm offers regularly instead of seasonally or as a special. And “hoy jor” ($12) tempted me with its description of two types of meat and seafood mixed in house, wrapped in bean curd and deep-fried.

House-made wontons in soup caught my eye. But so did pork “cracklings” larding Charm’s “boat noodles” — rice vermicelli in house-made broth with Chinese broccoli and cilantro. Both were priced at $15, but the advantage went to the boat noodles, listed under the menu’s heading of “Charm specialties.”

Also under specialties, Thai omelet ($15) with either pork or shrimp is another lesser-seen dish locally. The breaded and deep-fried swai fish with sweet, tangy apple sauce is an intriguing item and also the most expensive at $20.

Reliably drawn to curry, my partner chose panang ($15) from the list that also included green, yellow and massaman. All entrees come with a side of steamed rice and choice of beef, pork, chicken or tofu. Add $3 for fish or shrimp, $6 for both.

From beverage options of Thai iced tea, Vietnamese iced coffee, milk tea, hot teas and sodas, we requested a yuzu lemonade ($4). I thought I’d be content with a sip of my partner’s drink but soon realized I should have ordered my own glass of sweet-tart elixir.

The curry came out first, indicating dishes arrive as they’re ready, not necessarily as a progression from appetizers through salads and soups to entrees. Vibrantly hued with abundant chicken and vegetables — peas, carrots and bell peppers — the curry displayed several whole kaffir lime leaves.

This citrus foliage native to Southeast Asia imparts an inimitably bright, floral note that permeates and lingers in the nostrils. Anyone unfamiliar with kaffir lime might find Charm’s curry very different from others they’ve tried. I can’t get enough of it and, for that reason, would be hard-pressed to choose a different type — even my favorite green curry with eggplant and Thai basil — over this superior version of panang.

A more monochromatic presentation, the “hoy jor” appetizer benefited from a few spears of colorful crudite, which also served to cleanse the palate of fat. Intensely savory, the “hoy jor” played almost like Thai-style sausage: pork, chicken, crabmeat and imitation crab amalgamated to a smooth consistency and densely packed into a tofu skin casing.

The plant-based protein provided a delightfully crispy contrast to the toothsome meat and seafood. Sweet plum sauce for dipping could have come in a slightly larger quantity.

Surprisingly savory, green papaya salad done well is the perfect balance of tart lime juice, sweet palm sugar, spicy chiles and funky fish sauce. The fresh produce crunch — green beans, carrots and papaya — was heightened with a liberal portion of shelled peanuts. Just this salad with a side of rice could completely sate my appetite.

But I had a massive bowl of “boat noodles” to manage and knew I’d have way more meat than I needed. A surprise addition to strips of pork and pork cracklings listed on the menu were a couple of meatballs, whose chewy texture I adore.

The dish’s strongest impression, however, came via its star anise-scented broth. There’s no mistaking this heady spice, essential in many Southeast Asian soups, including Vietnamese pho.

Seated at a communal table, slurping noodles and sipping broth, I could almost imagine myself transported to a street hawker’s stall in Thailand. Indeed, chefs’ and the restaurant industry’s characterization of cuisine as “street food” over the past decade or so has indicated trendiness yet staying true to a culture’s cookery for the masses.

Promoting online ordering and takeout, Charm has a pleasant waiting area — even some kids activities — for carryout customers. See charmthaioregon.square.site

Located at 205 N. Phoenix Road, Suite E-1, Charm is in the Shoppes’ corner storefront, formerly occupied by Grass Shack Cafe. Hours are 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 4:30-8:30 p.m. Wednesday through Monday. Call 541-897-0301.

Reach features editor Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4494 or slemon@rosebudmedia.com