Thai Square

June 2006 Cheap Eats

This sweet Arlington dining room–the destination of choice for Thai expats who want a fix of home cooking–gets better and better. It elevates the familiar into something memorable while also making the unconventional feel comfortable.

Salads here are heaping mounds of crunch and texture, whether it's a tangle of green papaya with tomato and peanuts, flank steak with crunchy roasted rice, or minced pork and pork rind with ginger. Pad Thai is a perfect balance of sweet, tart, and fishy; pad see-ew (get it with pork) with caramelized rice noodles is a high point, too. Curries, such as the fiery country-style curry with eggplant, green beans, and a choice of meats, are intricate in flavor.

Adventure awaits in a plate of crunchy fried squid with basil–even the basil leaves are fried crisp–and a dish of catfish that gets a double whammy of chili peppers and paste. Even better is fragrant pig-knuckle stew, a braised knee-joint of pork with cinnamon and star anise. And chili-dusted, sun-dried beef or pork is fireworks on the palate.

Look to specials for sweets. Most revolve around sticky rice with ripe slices of mango or a spill of coconut cream.