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Thai Again 

What restaurant owners (and husband and wife team) Lam Chhak and Thom Soundara needed was a monsoon to put out the electrical fire which started in the kitchen of their restaurant 18 months ago. Finally, in February, the team got Monsoon, Thai Cuisine Restaurant, 2801 South Boulevard, reopened. Thai-native Chhak and Laos-native Soundara first opened Monsoon in 1996, but Chef Soundara has played an important role in Charlotte's flourishing Thai restaurants. He's been here for 23 years and cooked in the first Thai Taste when it opened in the late 1980s. Why is a Laotian producing Thai food? Thai cuisine and Laotian cuisine are quite similar. Historically, in fact, the Laotian land east of the Mekong River and the Thai lands west of that river have at some points been ruled by one government. Thai is a meld of Vietnamese, Chinese, Malaysian, Cambodian, Laotian and Indian foods and the dishes are heavily dependent on the trained palate of a cook to create a tapestry of textures and flavors. Soundara prides himself on his ability to pick the freshest foods, and he creates dishes of remarkable intensity and purity of flavor. While the restaurant was closed, Soundara took the opportunity to visit Laos and revisit the foods of his homeland. The newly renovated interior sparkles with light yellow green walls and extensive woodwork. Chhak notes her husband spent some of his time during the 18 months they were closed finishing the woodwork for the interior, including making the tabletops. Consistent with the spring-like feel of the restaurant is a well-edited menu. Much of it is the same as the original menu: modestly curt. When they first reopened, Soundara added some new dishes with lamb to the menu, but has since reconsidered and will be sticking to favorites for now. Thai dishes enjoy an interplay of expectations between aroma and taste. The trick is to find the balance and most of the dishes presented at Monsoon achieve this. Start with an assortment of appetizers. The "fresh" (although fried is available as well) spring rolls are packets of freshly cut vegetables wrapped with shrimp. Luscious dumplings, offered both fried or perfectly steamed, come five to a plate. Not up to the other appetizers is the mellow Mee Krob with scant tamarind in the sauce and lacking the anticipated spunk. Add to this the brown edged leaves of iceberg lettuce and this is one dish I would pass on. Monsoon's promise lies in its green papaya salad, a dish with a dazzling display of sweet, sour, and salty elements. But the glory of the kitchen resides in the curries. The lush Kang Panang with chopped kaffir lime leaves and holy basil was a gift to the senses and shows Soundara's skill and birthright. The fragrance of basil commingles with spices and coconut all the while hovering at nose level. Meanwhile each bite of tender chicken, slivers of bell peppers and carrots, and peas provide little explosions of concentrated flavor. Equally winning is the Pad Thai, those famous noodles sauteed with eggs, scallions, and ground roasted peanuts, which is perfectly balanced with a spectrum of flavors. Monsoon prices are easy to swallow. Most dinner entrees range from $8.95 to $10.95. Lunch specials are $6.95 to $7.95. The wine list is spare, but there are a number of beers. I can never figure out why people would go to a place like Monsoon and not share, or even worse, not share and order identical items. I admit if I had ordered only the splendid Kang Panang, I'd be happy. But the key to eating well at Monsoon is to go with two or three friends and share a spate of dishes. You'll be glad you did.

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