Million Thai Restaurant

Food: 3.5 of 5 Suns

Ambience: 2.5 of 5 Suns

Service: 4 of 5 Suns

11 a.m. to 2 p.m., 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Closed Tuesdays

Dinner for two excluding drinks and tip: Basic, $25; loaded, $40

I’d love to write that Million Thai Restaurant is one of those hidden gems where great ethnic food is to be had in a dimly-lit diner with deteriorating Halloween-orange Naugahyde back-rests.

Alas, in Million Thai’s case, the gem in the rough is only half true. Two of the main dishes were beautiful, fragrant, fresh and delicious. But of other two, one was passable and one not properly prepared.

As a hole-in-the-wall prospect, Million Thai was tantalizing. It’s in Beverly at the east end of 118th Avenue, in a mildly dilapidated strip mall (parking out front) with a physiotherapy clinic on one side and a convenience store on the other. In short, the kind of area you expect to find a hidden gem.

The kitchen, next to the restaurant, has its own storefront window. As you approach, you can see two cooks hard at work. It looks encouraging.

The charming young Thai server has a million-dollar smile and often bows from the waist. She is charming. The decorations consist of photos of Thailand temples, a large 3-D golden Buddha head sculpture/painting on the wall, and Thai flags strung overhead.

There’s much intriguing choice on the four-page menu. But when we ask for recommendations, the Thai server steers us to the ol’combo dinners on the back page. We follow her advice, settling for the “$37 Dinner for Two Set A”, one appetizer (coconut prawns), one curry (green with pork), one stir-fry (lemongrass with chicken) and coconut rice.

In retrospect, this was a mistake. We ought to have free-foraged from the more intriguing menu offerings – tamarind fish, Thai-style sausage, “money bags” or crispy minced pork and veggie wontons, a glass seafood noodle salad, Singapore noodles …

The four jumbo prawns were deep-fried in a thick, shredded-coconut batter. They were tasty, the hot prawn twinning nicely with the crunchy deep-fried coconut shell. But the interior batter dough was thick and pasty.

The green curry and the lemongrass stir-fry were magnificent. Both had the perfect blend of complex tastes and fragrances that make good Thai cooking so delightful.

The curry was perfectly spiced with heat, ginger, basil and coconut, its veggies perfectly done. The same went for the stir-fry with its mini-chopped corn and broccoli in a rich, spicy lemongrass, chili jam and red pepper sauce. Only decorum kept me from licking the plates.

The deep-fried Neapolitan ice cream, unfortunately, was a downer of a dessert. Deep-fried ice cream, done properly, encases a scoop of ice cream in batter. The concoction is plunged into boiling hot oil, to be pulled out with the ice cream still cold inside the sizzling sweet crust.

I don’t know what happened, but the coconut outer crust was barely warm, chewy with a texture like cold cornmeal. The whole thing appeared to have sat for hours in the fridge before serving.

An okay opening to the dinner, a beautiful middle, a near-inedible finish: When the young server delivered dishes, it was with grace. When the female cook briskly thumped food on the table, it was charmless.

If I’m in the neighbourhood, I’ll go back and try again, maybe for lunch. You’ll probably have better luck than me, given Million Thai has a devoted clientele. Just stay away from its deep fryer.

* * *

Having driven by a hundred times on Hwy 16A, my wife and I finally stopped at the iconic Jack’s Drive-In in Spruce Grove (127 First Avenue) for a mushroom burger and onion rings.

The ‘50s décor and murals were terrific. The food was close to awful – the burger was as bland as bland can be, seemingly drenched in tablespoons of mushroom soup. The onion rings, out of a bag, into the fryer, were without taste - were it not for the ketchup.

Somebody needs to take a little more interest in Jack’s food. As is, it can’t compete with McDonald’s, let alone A&W or that shining beacon of retro-style and classic burgers ‘n’ fries, Peter’s Drive-In in Calgary and now Red Deer.