Spice is Nice

Currying flavor on the Southside since spring, this zesty new entrant to Magnolia’s restaurant row will have your mouth hankering to give its Thai a try.

       Zowie! Although the name may be simple, the complex items this place is dishing up are anything but. Debuting on the ever-sprouting Southside this past spring, Spice is, by its own admission, “traditional Thai cuisine in a modern, contemporary setting.” And judging by the quarters and the cuisine at this modish-meets-modest eatery (read: trendy atmosphere channeling a laid-back vibe with food that’s equal parts delish and doable), the descriptor is spot-on.
       Because Spice is just that: a trendy (but not cloyingly so) Thai restaurant that kicks the concept up a notch (or, in its case, five notches … but more on that later). And with Amy Thanpaisarnsamut (who, among her other local culinary ventures, runs Thai Select on Hulen Street) and her fam at the helm, you know you’re in good hands.
       First, the ambiance. Sited on Magnolia Avenue, the building epitomizes that trademark mix of uncomplicated cool for which the Southside is gaining sway. Inside, it’s minimalism to the max, with exposed ceilings, concrete floors and Spartan walls swiped in pleasant hues. (FYI: The resulting acoustics rule out intimate banter.) Illumination comes via a combination of unfussy pendant lights and sunrays that stream through large windows.
       Second: the service. Our hostess was gracious and friendly, filling our water glasses and proffering menus immediately. That said, the service can be more than a bit spotty. Although obliging, the staff wasn’t quite in step. For example, we had more than one person ask to take our order. And when we requested a menu recommendation, another waiter was a bit, shall we say, abrupt with the answer. That said, if you don’t get the service you want from one waiter, you can always ask another. They are nothing if not helpful.
       But, ultimately, the true mark of an eatery is, of course, its food. And this is where Spice really shines. Flaunting a full lunch menu and an impressive dinner lineup, the restaurant has something for everyone … ethnic-food doyens and newbies alike.
       For starters, we chose the Spice Sampler ($15), a basic taste tester that includes two pot stickers, bamboo shrimp, crab rangoon, chicken satay and Thai crispy spring rolls. A good way to whet your whistle with an array of Spice’s popular items, it tends more toward the hum-drum than the holy cow.
       For our main courses, my dining companion selected the Pad Priew Wan with Scallops ($15), a pretty ambrosia of colors and textures featuring stir-fried pineapple, tomato, cucumber, onion and scallion in sweet and sour sauce. Flanking a pyramid of delectably nutty brown rice, it scrumptiously juxtaposed the crunchiness of fresh veggies with the tenderness of pineapples and tomatoes. I went for the Pad Thai with Chicken ($11), one of Spice’s biggest sellers … and there’s no question why. Chockfull of stir-fried rice noodles, tofu, egg, bean sprouts, scallions and crushed peanuts, the dish is a zen blend of sweet/sour/hot/crunchy/chewy goodness. By the way, the heat level in all of the menu items is totally your call, as Spice preps everything on a (very accurate) 1-to-5 scale. We chose a modest 2, and it was plenty hot enough. Kick it up to a full 5 … if you dare.

       For dessert, we split an order of Roti with Ice Cream ($8), spotlighting thin, slightly sweet flatbread wedges fanned around a cylindrical-shaped dollop of homemade coconut ice cream. According to our server, it’s the eatery’s most popular meal ender. And we could see why. It truly hit the sweet spot!
       So, yes, the service is still trying to find its legs, but if the food (oh, the food!) is any indication, Spice will be heating things up around here for some time to come.