[ review ]
Over the river and through the woods, to Leverington and Ridge we go. Roxborough, son! Why? Thai. Phu Fha Thai, to be more specific, a dusty, Buddha-bedecked parlor with 30 seats and cooking to squelch the battle cry that Philly has no respectable Thai food.
We do. It's here, in hilly Roxborough, the blue-collar enclave framing Manayunk on the north and west. This is where Somlak Phongchang, a former government accountant, made her home upon arriving from Chiang Mai in 2001. And it's where she recreates recipes from her childhood in the region's fertile, forested north. Do you know another Thai cook simmering a stockpot of the Chiang Mai specialty called hung lay curry? I don't, but I'd wager none could top Phongchang's version, as shiny and black as dark-chocolate ganache. Cloaking hunks of braised pork loin, the curry's complex, long-lasting umami had me tasting tamarind, peanut, onion and chili all the way to the evening's mango-sticky-rice finale.
That sticky rice, by the way, was spot-on starchy. The mango was luminous with the rare balance of floral sweetness and acidity you find in about one of every hundred Stateside mangoes. But I'm getting ahead of myself. What preceded the dessert also earned raves, from the delicate steamed crab dumplings to the cool, crunchy, properly fishy som tum.
Out in the black-and-white-tiled, burgundy dining room, where the main decoration was an adorable Zoolander-haired toddler wandering around in a sailor-striped onesie, I could hear the lurch of aggressively bubbling oil in the kitchen when Phongchang dropped our order of fish cakes in the deep fryer. The crunchy pucks of "white fish" — translator/husband Jeff Chungprawat doesn't know the English name, but my best guess is tilapia — looked as humble as the restaurant itself, but the flavor — red curry spices, crushed lemongrass and shredded kaffir lime leaves wound through the moist mash, electrifying the otherwise mild fish with powerful, fragrant brightness and complex heat.
Carrot flotsam and cucumber jetsam drifted through a sweet-and-sour chili sauce, half salad, half dip for the fish cakes and the kanom beng, an overstuffed, savory rice-flour crepe. Tinted yolk-gold with turmeric and folded in half, the papery pancake resembled a giant omelette, overflowing with sweet little shrimp, bean sprouts, bean curd and shredded coconut. Soft here, crunchy there, the crepe was a textural dynamo, but also messy to eat and not especially flavorful. The chili sauce took care of the latter problem.
If using precooked duck could ever be forgivable, I might pardon Phongchang for featuring it in her chu chee curry. (For what it's worth, the fowl's taste and texture didn't throw any red flags.) Sliced breast and whole legs bobbed in the saffron-hued coconut-milk gravy, a meaty jetty for dripping green beans, carrots, peppers and snow peas. Phongchang should really get to roasting her own birds; this curry, with its sweet, tropical, kaffir-lime aroma balanced exquisitely by judicious dashes of fish sauce, deserves it.
Chicken satay was a bit dry, but distinguished by a lively peanut sauce. Chicken dumplings were as light as the crab ones; the spring roll, pedestrian; the fried tofu, squishy and bland. At five months old, Phu Fha Thai isn't flawless. But warm, well-intentioned service — ace your Thai pronunciations and the staff will beam — and wallet-friendly prices help any irksome shortcomings fade into the background. Hung lay and chu chee come to the surface, along with this realization: I'll be seeing a lot more of Roxborough.
Phu Fha Thai | 6190 Ridge Ave., 215-483-0487. Open Mon.-Thu., 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 4:30-9:30 p.m.; Fri., 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 4:30-10 p.m.; Sat., noon-10 p.m.; Sun., 4-9 p.m. Appetizers, $4.95-$7.95; entrées, $10.95-$17.95; dessert, $5.