Monday, September 17, 2012

Teach a Kid to Blog - PLUS a Restaurant Review

Photo from:
Hi there again, food fans.

I had an interesting experience this past week that led me here.

I was asked by a friend and former co-worker to be a guest speaker in her 8th grade class. The topic: blogging.

Wait, what?

Believe me, I know.

It all happened so fast! Before I knew it, it was Friday morning and I was standing in front of a group of kiddos, introducing them to the wonders of blogging.

I came prepared with an arsenal of candy and goodies because crossing the threshold of a junior high instantly evokes all long-forgotten feelings of LIKE MEEEE! A few years under one's belt and that all changes, according to my friend the teacher. But not for me. LIKE MEEEE!

In all seriousness, I thoroughly enjoyed being back in a classroom again. The students were wonderful and so full of enthusiasm. I earned my degrees with every intention of teaching once I finished, and only time will tell whether that's where my life takes me. But it's experiences like last Friday that keep the spark going.

The experience also got me thinking about my blog and why it can be so hard to dedicate time to it. Part of it is my fault. But I also see people who manage to cram so much into their days, and all I can think is, there are still 24 hours in the day, right? How do they do it?! I wish I were that... together. But I'm not. Many nights, we don't have homecooked meals. We have thrown-together-ness. A last minute effort to put something in our bellies. My husband works a lot of evening shifts, and it's hard to work up enough give-a-damn to cook a meal at that point, much less photograph it for the blogosphere.

I know. Excuses, excuses.

In an effort to make amends for this, I'd like to switch gears a little bit, blog-wise. I still have every intention of posting recipes and how-tos. Cooking is as important to me now as it has ever been. But so is eating. I love eating. My waistline is a testament to my food love affair. To better reflect this interest of mine, I'd like to incorporate some restaurant reviews into my blog in the hopes it will alleviate some of the gaps I experience due to a lack of cooking and thereby a lack of recipes. I know a lot of blogs post recipes picture-free, and I enjoy a lot of these blogs. However, it is important to me to maintain a visual element to my blog, and that takes time, guys. When I do it, I want it done right. So for the times when I can't do it right, you'll get to hear about the food I am eating.

I know some of you don't live in the area, but I hope you'll stay for the foodie chit chat. I love hearing about food from far off places and adding it to my foodie bucket list. I hope maybe some of my reviews will do the same for you, should you ever be in my neck of the woods, and also educate you on some places to avoid. Trust me, I'll be sufficiently up front about the misses and not just the hits.

So, without further ado, let's move on to my first review, shall we?

Sala Thai
315 North Vermont Street
Covington, LA 70443
(985) 249-6990
Hours: Monday - Thursday 11:00 am to 9:00 pm, Friday - Sunday 11:00 am to 10:00 pm
Price: $15 and under

Finding this restaurant was the result of a tremendous amount of frustration. Allow me to explain. I have a very good friend who, sadly, lives nearly an hour away from me. When neither of us feels like driving all the way to the other, we meet in the middle. No matter what our plans are for the day, eating usually becomes part of the equation at some point, but we were falling into a rut. Going to the same "safe" restaurants was quickly getting stale, and some of these restaurants are hardly safe anymore - an unfortunate outcome after what appears to be the implementation of more shortcuts and not nearly enough of the food TLC that drew us to these places to begin with. (More on that another time.)

In an effort to shake things up a little bit, I began researching other local restaurants, looking at ratings on sites like Urbanspoon and Yelp. I narrowed things down to a handful of restaurants, two of which served Thai food. For the sake of fairness, I won't name the other restaurant as I still have not tried them out, but what set Sala Thai appart for me was their rating on Urbanspoon. If you're unfamiliar, Urbanspoon asks reviewers to classify a restaurant using "Doesn't like it," "Likes it," or "Really likes it." The unnamed restaurant had very favorable reviews, and it had the "Likes it" ratings to prove it. However, Sala Thai had mostly "Really Likes it." I wouldn't hand out that kind of rating to just any restaurant, personally, so I considered it fairly noteworthy and attention-grabbing.

Sala Thai is located in a charming converted house in Downtown Covington. It's street parking only, so come prepared with your parallel parking wits about you. Walking up the stairs to the covered porch, it's hard to believe the unpretentious little home could be anything but that. But open the door and you will be overcome by pleasant, warm, spicy aromas that will envelop you with its comforting embrace. Yep, you're in the right place.

Photo courtesy of the Sala Thai website.
At lunch time, Sala Thai offers its customers a small buffet. Alarmingly small. You will likely be taken aback by the selection at first, perhaps even dissuaded by the handful of options lined up along the hallway, visible from the front door. Don't be. Just let your nose reassure you, and go with the flow.

In two weeks, I've visited Sala Thai twice and ate the buffet on both occasions. There were a few dishes that seem to be staples on the buffet: the Sala Thai Spring Rolls, Tom Yum soup, Pad Thai, and Phanaeng Curry. The "wild card" dishes I tried during my two visits were: pork with mixed vegetables, Pad Prik Khing, Pork Larb, Soft Spring Rolls, and two other dishes of which I cannot recall the names. One of them was fried catfish with mixed vegetables in a red sauce. The other was given the English description of "Spicy Chinese noodles." Also on the buffet line is a constant supply of Jasmine rice and an array of dipping sauces.

Overall, there seems to be a great deal of care and consideration given to the selections chosen for the buffet line that should be obvious to those paying attention. The owners of Sala Thai can't be faulted for including some familiar dishes for the uninitiated or unadventurous, like Pad Thai or the pork stir fry. And few would balk at crunchy spring rolls with a sweet dipping sauce. But for those who want to try it all, like me, there are plenty of exciting options that are a few steps outside of that comfort zone, like the Larb, which is studded with chilies to light up your palate.

I tried each and every dish on both of my visits. It was tough, stuffing myself with Thai food until I thought I'd burst. The things I do to enlighten my food repertoire. And the result is that I have virtually nothing negative to say about Sala Thai. Every dish was wonderful, and anything I wouldn't care to eat again had nothing to do with the preparation of the dish and everything to do with my own personal tastes. The stand out dish for me was the Phanaeng Curry, a chicken dish with sliced red bell pepper and kaffir lime leaves, smothered in a sauce laced with creamy coconut milk. Its tame heat is extinguished by the creamy sauce, leaving just a pleasant tingle. However, it's hard to play favorites at this buffet. As someone who walks in to any buffet with the same game plan - to try a little of everything the first time through the line and return later for the stand outs - I found myself filling my plate with all the offerings each time I returned (and there were more than a few return visits).

Sala Thai puts out small trays on the buffet that can empty out quickly, but this is not a negative as one might expect. Just as having a limited number of dishes allows the cooks to focus on making the few that are there really shine, having smaller servings keeps the food hot and fresh, unlike many buffets with sad trays that sit for who knows how long. When they are emptied, the trays are quickly swept away and replaced within minutes. I never waited more than two or three minutes before I was able to return for a fresh batch.

The owners and employees are eager to please and very inviting. On both occasions, my party was quizzed on how we enjoyed the food, what we enjoyed, and what brought us in that day. This is not just friendly conversation, but also serves as a gauge for the owners who are obviously willing to do whatever it takes to provide their customers with a positive experience. Their desire for constant feedback is refreshing at a time when dining out and customer satisfaction has fallen from a top concern to a passing acknowledgement.

I'm eager to return for their dinner service, and something tells me I won't be disappointed. Buffet is a difficult beast to tame, as Sala Thai has, so moving over to a traditional wait service should be a breeze. I'll be sure to post an update when I do. Given my track record already in these past two weeks, I don't think it will be a long wait.

Overall Score: 9/10 - Sala Thai has already been added to my list of must-stop restaurants. 

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