The microphones may be stowed away and the Thai pop songs confined to a TV, but Playground still draws a Thai crowd. They come for $3 Singha beers during a happy hour that stretches from opening time until 1 a.m., and for dishes that make no concessions to Western palates.
A meal here could be nothing but salads, although thatâs too meek a word for the likes of profoundly funky bamboo shoots; broken rice croquettes streaked with red curry paste; and crunchy raw shrimp, shining from fish sauce and lime, adorned with half-cloves of garlic the size of shark teeth and crushed chiles, not a seed left behind. Morning glory, bright green inside crispy shells of tempura flour, is meant to be dunked in a sauce thatâs almost a curry unto itself, heavy with squid, shrimp and ground pork.
One night, I ordered som tam (papaya salad) with pla raa, a famously pungent pickled fish sauce. The waitress said, âReally?â and smiled. When it arrived, she put it slightly to the side, warning, âThe smell is strong.â It was a step into another dimension, tasting like the ocean boiled down until it gave up the secrets of the depths.
More familiar to Westerners is pad kra pao, stir-fried holy basil, which here gains briny contours from jellylike century eggs, the yolks gone black. (The Thai name, khai yiao ma, translates literally as âhorse urine egg.â) A thrillingly sour curry is topped by triangles of omelet threaded with fernlike chaom, whose leaves have a sulfurous stench when raw â according to one Thai botanist, they should never be placed near pet mynah birds, lest the birds die from the fumes â but turn gentle and nutty in the pan.
The servers may ask, as they often do at Thai restaurants around town, âHow spicy?â…