Cafe Reviewed: Wednesday, June27, 2002
Big Bowl\r\nFresh-Ginger Ginger Ale $2.50\r\nThai Herb Golden Calamari $7.25\r\nPad Thai $7.95-12.95
Bowl and Chain

Mainstream vibes keep this Big Bowl franchise from achieving true Thai excellence.


Big Bowl

4701 West Freeway, FW. 817.989-8888. Sun-Thu 11am-10pm. Fri-Sat 11am-11pm. AE, D, M, V.

A gold standard for Thai food in North Texas hasn’t been available since The Royal Thai shut its doors on East Lancaster years ago. It’s heartbreaking these days to drive past the building, a boarded-up and broken-down reminder of an epicurean oasis in a desert of fried-chicken joints and taco stands.

So maybe it’s not fair to compare the offerings of a Thai-themed chain to the true Thai gen. But anyone hooked on the Thai cooking in that East Lancaster kitchen is doomed to a frustrating search for its equal. Big Bowl, Brinker International’s peddler of “fresh Asian cuisine,’’ falls short. Nothing my guest and I had at Big Bowl was bad. Some was very tasty. But the road to mass-market palatability is paved with homogenized El Chico cheese enchiladas and Olive Garden pasta primaveras. Think Chili’s meets Bangkok.

First, the good news. The hot spicy flavor in much good Thai food demands a cool, throat-soothing cocktail. My favorite offset to Thai spices was a vodka on the rocks with a twist of lime peel or a beer cooled to near-absolute zero. So I was more than a little skeptical when I heard that Big Bowl had concocted a non-alcoholic cocktail that outsold its boozy cousins. No way, I said.

But listen up: Don’t leave Big Bowl without trying its fresh-ginger ginger ale ($2.50 a pop). The bartender told us it was made in-kitchen from a syrup of fresh ground ginger root and sugar, soda water, and a squeeze of lime. The beverage I sampled at lunch one day was memorably effervescent and refreshing — like a fresh-squeezed lemonade or a stout, chilled, top-shelf vodka. Unfortunately, like other aspects of the Big Bowl menu, the ginger ale was hit or miss. At dinner a few nights after our lunch, we ordered the faux cocktail again — and this time it was so heavily laden with ginger that it burned our throats.

A staple in Thai cuisine is pad Thai — a mix of noodles, bits of fried egg, bean sprouts, cilantro, and chiles. Prepared properly, pad is a delectable blend of textures, flavors, and spices. The report on Big Bowl’s rendition of this Thai standby is also mixed. At lunch, my companion and I both selected chicken pad Thai ($8.95). Mine disappeared rapidly. My companion left half her meal (it was a big bowl) for a snack later that evening. Big Bowl’s pad Thai chicken, a little heavier than traditional fare, was a notch between passable and memorable.

A few days later, my self-described noodle-snarfing date, who was also a fellow Royal Thai patron, ordered up another pad dish — this one with salmon ($12.95) — and regretted it. The noodles swam in sauce. And whoever was in charge of the salt shaker apparently suffered a terrible wrist spasm while preparing this meal. A whole lotta shakin’ going on.

Pad Thai sometimes begs for a sidecar, and we had high hopes for the slender green beans that arrived on the lip of my date’s bowl. A would-be herbivore, she frequently vows that she could all but live off the various green beans served by Asian chefs. This bean-biting beauty likes her strings lightly cooked to preserve their fibrous freshness. Alas, the green doodlings served with her pad were barely cooked at all and very tough.

The redeeming component of her salmon pad Thai was the salmon itself. In most pad dishes, meat or tofu is tossed with the noodle. Big Bowl serves its salmon — a svelte, pink, seductive slab — as an intact filet atop the noodle mound. Whoever was overseasoning the noodles this night at least knew how to season and grill fish.

We agreed my selection for an entrée was the better choice for the evening — kung pao with tofu, spinach, and peanuts ($7.95) . This is a veggy dish that could make even a life-long carnivore salivate. The peanuts agreed favorably with the blackened chiles and chunky soy cubes.

At both lunch and dinner, we ordered a seasonal green salad. Though there is nothing in this mix you wouldn’t find in grocery-store mesclun, there is something about the way Big Bowl presents its salad, pleasantly tossed with sesame mustard vinaigrette, that makes eating it a pleasure. And at $3.95, it was ample enough for two.

We had begun dinner with a trio of satay, peanut noodles, and summer roll ($6.95). The satay was plump and juicy where it traditionally can be dry and paper-thin. We disagreed over both the noodles and the roll. She liked the noodles — they left no impression on me. I found the roll light and crispy. She thought it feloniously light on shrimp.

Big Bowl crows about its healthy menu. Our appetizer was called the “Awesome Long Life Combo.’’ One of our waiters bragged about his “health-conscious” customers. If Brinker is going to boast about how healthy Big Bowl is, it ought to put its nutritional info where its mouth is and post the numbers on its menu — as its American cousin Chili’s does with its “Guiltless” offerings.

An inexplicable reverse correlation bedeviled our two trips to Big Bowl: During a busy weekday lunch rush, we sat at the bar for 10 minutes waiting for a table. When one opened up, the service was prompt and the food was just a notch below the Royal standard. Conversely, at dinner, we had sloppy, chatterbox service and lackluster execution of a meal in a restaurant with several empty tables. Go figure.

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