Names: Busara, 404 36th St. in Sehome Village, Bellingham. Serving Thai cuisine for lunch and dinner daily. At busarabellingham.com and 360-734-8088. And Soy House, downtown Bellingham location at 400 W. Holly St. Serving Vietnamese cuisine for lunch and dinner daily. At soyhouserestaurant.com and 360-393-4857.
Sink your teeth into: I turn to Vietnamese and Thai cuisine when it’s hot and I’m in the mood for something lighter but more satisfying than “sticks and twigs,” which is what I call plain old salad.
I stopped in at Busara, Bellingham’s long-standing Thai restaurant, one day to satisfy that craving with a grilled steak salad for $9.99.
I asked for four out of five stars and got just the right amount of burn, spicy enough to keep my attention but not so fiery that my taste buds were too singed to taste the food.
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The salad was made up of thin slices of grilled beef mixed with lettuce, refreshing cucumber, tomatoes and red onions dressed in a vinaigrette of fish sauce – the salty liquid condiment that is the cornerstone of Thai cuisine – diluted with lime juice and sugar.
The beef, which was served at room temperature, was a bit chewy. I wish it had been cooked less. And the kitchen needed to cut back on the chopped garlic in the dish or cook it to soften its sharp notes.
Still, the salty, sweet, spicy flavors and crisp textures were a winning combination.
I also ordered a side of brown rice, for $1, to better soak up the zingy dressing.
The next day, I ordered the green papaya shrimp salad for $9.99 from Soy House’s downtown location.
This salad is of Lao origin but has migrated beyond those borders to other parts of Southeast Asia.
Soy House’s version was made of shredded papaya, shrimp, pickled slivers of carrot, shredded Thai basil, fried shallot and roasted peanuts.
The mild-tasting papaya is unripe, so its firm texture is akin to broccoli slaw, and the salad depends on the sweet and tangy dressing to hold the dish together.
The papaya provided a satisfying crunch that was complemented by the tender, slightly smoky shrimp.
But the nuoc cham dressing was flat. That made the salad surprisingly bland.
The flavor profiles for nuoc cham, one of the main sauces in Vietnamese cuisine, are similar to the Thai dressing for the steak salad. It, too, is made of fish sauce diluted with lime juice and sweetened with sugar. It also has chilies in it and garlic, while some versions include vinegar.
The sauce is usually sour, salty, savory and spicy.
But the one at Soy House was missing the citrus or the acid components, and it didn’t have garlic, so the sauce lacked depth. After the first couple of bites, I let the salad sit in the dressing for a few minutes, and that helped bump up the flavor a little.
You might also try... My other go-to place for salad is the deli section at the Community Food Co-op in Bellingham, where you can get all sorts of prepared salads from a range of cuisines that are packed with flavor. Another favorite is Leaf & Ladle in Bellingham and its irresistible, garlicky chicken Caesar salad.
Got suggestions for tasty tidbits in Whatcom County or an eatery known for a particular dish? Send them to Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, email@example.com, @kierelyea