Warning: Flavor Vacuum at Thai Bistro
I just had a most unsettling experience that I must vent to my fellow food lovers. About 10 years ago Thai Bistro opened in Canton Michigan, which is a bedroom community for some of Detroit's suburbs (yes, in Detroit, even the suburbs have suburbs). It was very well reviewed in the Ann Arbor paper and I checked it out, enjoying my meal very much. I had cause to be in Canton last night and had heard that Thai Bistro had become one of the most popular restaurants in the area. This did not surprise me since good restaurants in the Detroit area are few and far between, to say nothing of good Thai food in a place like Canton. So I arranged to meet friends there for dinner.
It is not uncommon for good restaurants to go down hill. But this deterioration usually follows a standard trajectory: the service becomes slow, the decor runs down, the chef uses cheaper ingredients and gets sloppy in the preparation. Thai Bistro had become lousy in a more unusual, but yet quintessentially American way. Over time it had adjusted itself to the marketplace. It was as if some mad scientist in their kitchen had invented a culinary flavor vacuum extractor which left the texture and visual appearance of the food untouched, yet rendered it utterly bland. Perhaps they were making money hand over fist, extracting all the flavor from their food, selling the distilled flavor to Thai restaurants in Chicago (which would explain a lot), and then selling the de-flavored remnants to their naive customers at handsome prices.
There are two elements that make this story more interesting (I hope) than just another rant against a bad restaurant. The first is how popular Thai Bistro is. We arrived for an early dinner at 5:45 and were lucky to get a table. The place was packed with a line out the door until the time we left at 7:30. The second was the lone exception to the flavor vacuum principle, which was heat (spiciness). You could specify how hot you wanted your food, and everything was fairly scaled down for American tastes, but there were some hot peppers floating around in the sauces that gave them a little kick. Taken together I detect an interesting marketing strategy. Thai Bistro has hit that marketing balance. They are selling an exotic experience, but the food is only slightly different from what their customers are used to. So, the food looks very interesting in colorful sauces and with unusual sounding ingredients. But all Thai spices and all fish sauce is omitted, because the Canton population is not used to these flavors and doesn't want anything "weird" in their food. Hot peppers are available because heat has become much more familiar to American palates recently, and is seen by many as the litmus test of culinary authenticity. By making hot dishes available, some people trained on Mexican food will like them, and even those who don't order them will feel assured that they are getting a "real Thai experience." For Thai food lovers, the effect is a little surreal. But for the Canton clientele, the effect is an exotic experience that leaves their palates pleasantly unchallenged.
Unfortunately, I think that restaurants with marketing strategies such as what you describe for Thai Bistro have become endemic throughout small towns and suburbs in the midwest. Perhaps, blame it on the people who tolerate or even clamor for this kind of tasteless food--unfortunately, the restauranteur has to adapt to the market conditions, and he often does so by "dumbing down" the food.
Here in the bustling metropolis of Wausau, Wisconsin (pop. 70,000+ with surronding suburbs), the single Thai restaurant that we had lasted a couple of years or so, then folded. (Not that the food was anything special there to begin with.) More to the point, in the last two years or so, almost a half dozen Chinese style "buffets" have sprung up all over town and, in spite of rumors about food poisoning, gut-wrenching sanitary conditions, etc., the natives here swarm the places. There isn't much difference among these buffets: Forget about getting any slap-in-the-face, kick-in-the-arse, bust-you-upside-the-head flavors of ginger, fresh green onions, garlic, etc., what you usually greets you at these places are tired old trays of foodstuffs--as you point out, colorful enough--but totally devoid of flavor, except for what, I suspect, are the residua of some kind of semi-chemical tastes from the inside of a jar. (I guess this is the "sauce.") Of course, the food is presented on steam tables and sits in puddles of congealed goo. (God help us if the food was oily, as is so much of decent Szechuan stuff.) Also as you have noted, there are sometimes vestigial hints of some red-pepper heat--but not enough to take notice about, and the dishes that do offer this are usually marked in bright red so as to alert the easily offended and the naive, lest they cry out, "Wow! This stuff is WAY too hot! We can't eat this!" The dumplings and spring rolls and egg rolls are all factory made and pre-frozen, but the folks here just love 'em.
The last I heard, Wisconsin has the fattest people in the United States (second only to Louisiana--unless my stats are old). Therefore, the big draw here is "all you can eat"--and do they ever! Better'n cheese & bratwurst & beer at a Packer game (well, almost).
Only solution I've found is to stop patronizing these places, get a bunch of cook books, make your own (yeah, I can get lemon grass and citrus leaves even around here), and take frequent trips to Chicago or New York.
A friend of mine recently noted that the more popular Thai food gets, and the more Thai restaurants there are, the blander the food gets. I know in my area (So.ME) the transformation is complete. I think the food has been reengineered for the lowest common denominator wannabe-trendsetter masses seeking out safe trends years later. (As opposed to true trendsetters, who find the first in their area, before it becomes a victim of its own popularity.)
It's a vicious cycle. Knowing that sophisticated people are supposed to enjoy exotic cuisines, and wanting to think of themselves as sophisticated, they go to ethnic restaurants, yet demand food that is unchallenging. Restauranteurs meet the demand, and their business goes up. Voila! All the ethnic restaurants become "theme" restaurants, shadows of their former selves.
When my elderly mother came to visit, we took her to our then-favorite Thai restaurant (I don't think we have a favorite anymore), and even though the food was really bland (which she does like), she didn't like it. It seemed she was expecting something exactly like Chinese restaurant food.