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Venue Review: Galanga Thai Cuisine

Super Thai soup
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Galanga Thai Cuisine
By "Sue Kidd"
Tacoma News Tribune

There are certain menu mysteries about restaurants that become something like a secret handshake. Maybe it's a private after-hours dinner only the most-coveted regulars are invited to partake. Or perhaps it's a signature cocktail a bartender concocts for a select few on Monday nights. Or a sushi roll with some simple name like "lunchtime roll" that only those who routinely sit at the sushi bar know to order off menu.

At Galanga Thai, a soup is the secret handshake (until this article, that is). It's never been on the regular menu of the six-year-old restaurant at 1129 Broadway in downtown Tacoma. Its popularity comes from word of mouth, and a chef who occasionally touts its nuance to a handful of regulars. The soup at Galanga Thai is called, very simply, "Beef Noodle Soup."

In Thailand, the soup might be roughly translated as something like "Guaytiow Neua Toon," although a direct translation in our alphabet is murky. At Galanga, ordering "Beef Noodle Soup" will get you a steaming bowl filled with chunks of flap beef, chewy rice noodles, bean sprouts and a broth scented with heady Thai ingredients.

Co-owner Ted Kenney, who runs the restaurant with his chef wife, Yim Kenney, estimates customers order the soup 10 to 12 times a week, although it's not on the menu. It was once on a specials menu a few years ago. The Kenneys do like to tell regulars about the soup, and sometimes regulars will tell other regulars about the flavorful Thai beef soup, but it's somewhat of a mystery to the couple how it has achieved such longevity.

Even if customers stopped ordering it, Yim would still make the beef noodle soup. It's one of her favorite dishes and reminds her of home. When she first made the soup here, before Galanga Thai opened, she had to have a sister fax a recipe to her.

The soup's appeal is not a mystery for Kathy Johnson. She has ordered the Galanga secret soup regularly for the past few years. She works at Ninth and Broadway, near Galanga Thai, and walks to the restaurant for lunch with co-worker Mary Dillard, another devoted fan.

"We are addicted to that wonderful soup," said Johnson. "It's the many layers of flavor that are in that soup." Indeed, with its hearty chunks of beef, chewy rice noodles and fragrant broth, it's the kind of soup you want to wrap yourself in lately whenever you check your 401(k) balance.

So how did Johnson and Dillard discover the soup? A random chef-customer exchange a few years ago with Yim, of course. "We'd gone in there enough times, we would go at least once a week and she knew us pretty well," said Johnson. "She's so darling. She was out there (in the dining room), bussing a table, doing some straightening around like we always see her do. She said, 'Have you ordered?' She said, 'I just made a soup that I think you will like, you should order it. It's not on the menu.' " And order, they did.

Johnson said she and Dillard became such instant fanatics, they obsessively called to see if the soup was being made that day. "Early on, we would call down . . . because they didn't make it every day. We told her to put it on the menu. In all the time we've been having it, it's not been on the menu."

A complex treat

Johnson said she has no idea, really, what goes into the soup. She likes the complexity of the flavors but can't even fathom the list of ingredients. And she knows that, depending on who is making it, the flavors can differ.

"Yesterday, it was a little bit different," said Johnson. "She (Yim) wasn't there, and even when she makes it, it's a little different every time. . . . I haven't made this at home, but it's so hard to imagine what goes into creating those really unique layers of flavors. Yesterday, there was a citrusy flavor there. It's hard to identify the flavors. Some days, the cilantro is more dominant than others. There are so many flavors in there, I love it."

The soup does have a lot of ingredients - more than 20 - and requires a separate base stock that is combined with a finishing stock and fresh ingredients.

Watching Yim make the beef noodle soup is sort of like viewing a flavor artist in motion. She feels her way through the finishing touches of the soup with tastes and sips of the broth. It's that pursuit of harmonizing the flavors of hot, sour, salty, sweet - those four elements are the flavor map behind much of Southeast Asian cuisine - that is quintessentially Thai.

Yim's harmonizing goes something like this: Not sweet enough? She reaches for the row of unmarked containers on a shelf above her cooking area in the kitchen of Galanga Thai. Into the pot goes a spoonful of white sugar. Not sour enough? She squirts a bit of white vinegar into the broth and gives it a stir. A visitor wants more spice? No problem, she'll just add a few more Thai chiles, maybe some ground chile flakes.

"The soup is a typical dish in Thailand," said Yim as she composed the soup one recent afternoon. Her glasses were a bit steamy and the kitchen fragrant with garlic and lemongrass as she explained the soup's appeal.

Distinctly Thai

Travelers to Thailand can find the soup in some street stalls and in shops that specialize in beef soups, explained Yim. It comes in many variations, with the chunks of beef Yim likes to use, or sometimes thinly sliced rare beef or even meatballs. It can be found in finer Thai restaurants, too, but it's more commonly found in shops that specialize in soup.

"Everyone who sells it, puts condiments on the table, and you add the condiments yourself," Yim explained. But at Galanga Thai, she prefers to do the flavor balancing.

Yim is from southern Thailand, the Prachuab Khiri Khan province, where her parents operate a rubber farm. She and her sisters moved to Bangkok to attend school and later moved to Koh Phangan to run a store and cafe, which is where she met husband Ted when he was backpacking through the Thai island in 1989 (Ted asked her where to rent a motorcycle). Ted is a native of Gig Harbor.

Before the cafe work, Yim worked for the forest service in Thailand, but cooking and Thai food were two loves she wanted to combine when she and Ted opened Galanga Thai in 2002.

Even in tough financial times, the Kenneys' restaurant remains bustling busy, as evidenced from the line out the door at lunchtime recently. They've thought about opening a second restaurant, but they worry about skewing their attention in multiple directions.

So for now, the Kenneys are content to concentrate their energies in a restaurant that focuses on the bright flavors of Thailand. As evidenced in their beef noodle soup, they are the masters of harnessing hot, sour, salty, sweet. Do yourself a favor, invoke the secret handshake and order it sometime. Or, be brave and bold: Try cooking it

Reviews & Comments
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(no rating) 11/5/2008 - Tacoma News Tribune - Sue Kidd

At Galanga Thai, a beef noodle soup is a deeply flavored delight. Though it may not be on the menu, it's popular with diners and perfect for fall weather - provided you have the time to labor over it.

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