- LAOTIAN DISH IN THE MIX: Larb Gai, minced meat with fresh herbs and spices, a meal in itself.
Did you ever frequent a place that held some kind of unexplainable magic? Maybe it was a park down the road from your first home, a particular pew in your church or that spot in the back of the library. But, for whatever reason, every time you were there, things were better, easier. The pressure was off. The mood was light. All you had to do was relax and let things happen. For a couple of years now, Chang Thai in Sherwood — a small, family-owned restaurant that is neighbor to a Subway in a mini-strip mall north of North Little Rock — has been one of our magic places.
Let's just be clear: You don't go to Chang Thai for a dazzling atmosphere. Those looking for ambiance or a romantic candlelit dinner will instead find florescent lighting and young children playing in a playpen behind the register, watching cartoons on an iPad. They might be a tad let down, but their disappointment would end there. The restaurant's unassuming digs belie how absolutely delicious the food is.
But we can already hear you, Little Rock readers. You don't want to drive out to Sherwood. Of course you don't. But do it this once. It doesn't take as long as you've been dreading. Order practically anything off the menu and you'll never think twice about going to Sherwood again.
We've never had anything we didn't like. But we will offer this very important warning: Chang's serves up dishes on a spicy scale of one to 10, but five is not the middle! Even those who like it hot probably need to start off around a 3. We thought we enjoyed spice until we ordered something at a 6, a mistake we won't make again.
We like to start off small, which is good because Chang's delivers on appetizers. On our last trip, we started with vegetable spring rolls ($1.95), which were crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside, thanks to the addition of rice noodles. It was a great mix of texture and they tasted great. Next we had a "salad," except this salad was mostly meat and not greens. Larb (or Larb Gai) is a Laotian dish made of minced meat mixed with a light sauce and plenty of fresh herbs and spices. Chang's version ($8) is one of the best we've had. We opted for the pork variety, which was cooked with scallions and shallots and then tossed with fresh cilantro and mint. Slightly cooked red onions and the romaine lettuce it's served on provide a nice crunch. The sauce was a perfect balance of sweet, sour and spicy. The flavor from the fish sauce was subtle and the chili was definitely there, but not overpowering. This could have been a meal in itself.
We decided to split two entrees. The first was an order of Thai Chili Fried Rice ($9) with beef, a must-order. The rice was fluffy and there was a good serving of crisp, barely cooked vegetables tossed into the dish. Each bite offered a little heat from the chili and some sweetness from the Thai basil. The whole dish had that light chili-oil sheen that coats your mouth and helps warm each bite.
The Pad See-You ($9) was another hearty and delicious offering. The chicken, carrots, broccoli, and egg were stir-fried with thick, wide rice noodles. A light coating of soy sauce on the noodles lent a richness and depth to the dish that made it something more than stir-fry. It was truly comforting comfort food.
- THAI COMFORT FOOD: The Pad See-You is a hearty dish of chicken, vegetables and stir-fried noodles.
Chang Thai has dessert offerings, but our favorite comes from the appetizer menu. Order the sesame balls — deep-fried rice flour pastry coated in sesame seeds and stuffed with sweetened red bean paste ($3.75). If you ask, the kitchen will happily stir up a side of lightly sweetened coconut milk, which makes for a perfect dipping sauce. We keep hoping that if we order this enough, it will officially become a dessert option. No such luck so far, but it's the perfect dessert option after a spicy dinner.
We've always felt like Chang Thai was our little secret. It never fails to impress and has been extremely consistent trip after trip. No beer and wine may be a downside, but it keeps costs low.
We never would have found out about Chang Thai if we hadn't just sucked it up one night and driven out to Sherwood. For a food scene bizarrely devoid of good Thai places, it's more than worth the trip.
Chang Thai Asian Cuisine
9830 state Hwy. 107 (north JFK Boulevard)
It's hard to go wrong with any of the appetizers. The hot wings ($4.75) are good-sized, served up crispy, hot and with a great sauce (add some sriracha to make 'em extra special). The dumplings ($3.75) are also a favorite. As for entrees, it's hard to order Pad Thai at a Thai restaurant and not feel like you're ordering exactly what every other person who comes in the door orders, but it's great here ($9). Some of the best around.
11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday.
No beer or wine. Credit cards accepted.