Like so many ethnic cuisines, the first Thai restaurants in America served dumbed-down versions of the cuisine -- bland, sweet and largely without spice.
That's changed with America's golden age of food, doubtlessly helped along by the over 200,000 Thais living in California, according to the Thai Consulate in Los Angeles. Thai cuisine is complex, a balance of sweet, sour, salt and spice, the spice coming from the generous use of fiery chilies.
Tom and Chutima Vongampai have operated Thai restaurants all over the South Bay and Midpeninsula for over 25 years. Opened in 2016, Aroy Thai Bistro on University Avenue in Palo Alto is their ninth, and according to Tom Vongampai, their signature restaurant. The Vongampais also own the nearby Thaiphoon.
Aroy has high ceilings with exposed wood beams, wood tables and padded banquettes and a few seats around the backlit bar. The décor is contemporary with just enough Siamese wall decorations to carry the theme.
Aroy means "delicious" and the food certainly is. In the kitchen are two Laotian chefs who cooked in Thailand for a decade. They split duties between making curry dishes and wok frying. Food is cooked to order and diners wanting added heat need just ask. The heat meter is generally mild.
An appetizing beginning were the fried pork egg rolls ($9, there's also a veggie option). Eight searing, hot-from-the-fryer rolls were filled with tender pork and served with a sweet chili sauce that wasn't too sugary.
Sweet and spicy wings ($11) were served with a homemade sweet-chili dipping sauce, tangy but not hot. The wings, dare I say it, were finger-licking good. The sauce was so tasty, I spooned it over the Sai Oua lemongrass sausages ($10), which were flecked with herbs, spices and lemongrass.
The Thai basil roasted duck ($15) came sautéed with chilies, garlic, tender bamboo shoots, Thai basil and lots of brown rice. The dish was a little shy on duck but otherwise satisfying. Most entrees could be ordered with either sole, catfish, prawns, beef, chicken, pork, vegetables or tofu.
I loved the brimming bowl of pad ped eggplant ($15) with mushrooms, bell pepper, coconut milk, red curry, sautéed eggplant, kaffir lime leaves and Thai basil. It was like a stew -- comforting and aromatic, with deep flavors.
The yellow curry with prawns ($16) was soupy but just as delicious, with great depth of flavor. The curry had been simmered in coconut milk with potatoes, tomato, carrot and onion. The clean-flavored mango and cashews ($12) featured tender chunks of sautéed chicken with fresh mango, cashews, bell peppers, onions, roasted peppers and crunchy water chestnuts.
Pad Thai noodles with lamb ($14) came with a heaping plate of pan-fried rice noodles, chili powder, egg, green onions, bean sprouts and peanuts separated on the plate so I could add as much crunch as I wanted. Tricky to cook, the lamb was on the chewy side. In fact, I liked the dish better without the lamb.
The barbecued chicken ($13) had been marinated in a seasoned chili sauce with lemongrass and a hint of garlic. The chicken was cut into uneven pieces, which was visually interesting on the plate and even better in the mouth.
Aroy serves five desserts. Vongampai said the sweet sticky rice with fresh mango ($7) is the most popular, but I opted for the fried banana with homemade coconut ice cream ($7). A worthwhile conclusion, it was a huge portion and not too sweet.
For beverages, Aroy offers beer, wine and wine cocktails, soft drinks, teas and lemonade.
Aroy offers enticing Thai fare, a step above what many of us are used to eating. This is no secret; the place is usually packed.
Aroy Thai Bistro
320 University Ave., Palo Alto
Hours: Lunch, Monday-Friday 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and Saturday-Sunday, noon to 3:30 p.m. Dinner, Sunday-Thursday 5-9:30 p.m. and Friday-Saturday, 5-10 p.m.
Reservations: email and phone
Credit cards: yes
Alcohol: beer and wine
Happy hour: yes
Outdoor dining: no
Noise level: moderate
Bathroom cleanliness: good