Can you take the heat? That’s the question diners should ask before ordering anything at Secret Thai Restaurant, an excellent and increasingly not-so-secret eatery on West Judge Perez Drive in Chalmette.
The Southeast Asian cuisine is well-known for its liberal use of chilies, but Thai restaurants often dial down the heat to please spice-sensitive Western palates. That’s not the case here, where dishes can be ordered according to a five-star heat barometer, with five stars hitting “real Thai spicy,” according to the wait staff.
They’re not kidding, and as someone dedicated to pushing my spice limits as often as possible, it’s thrilling to find a restaurant that lets me test myself. Palates and tolerances vary and spice-shy diners should order on the conservative side. Every table is equipped with three chili pepper add-ons — soaked in vinegar or oil and dried into flakes — so the heat can be increased.
Drunken noodles arrive glazed in a light soy-laced sauce flavored with Thai basil and studded with mushrooms, carrots, onions and thick slices of jalapeno. Order this at the five-star level and your mouth will burn, but in the best way.
Most dishes balance Thai cooking’s essential flavors, combining sweet, sour, salty and spicy ingredients.
A towering papaya salad combines thin strips of green papaya, carrots, snappy green beans, a fiery fish sauce vinaigrette and peanuts. Each bite brims with spice, acidity and crunch. The selection of curries includes an excellent thick and salty panang version made with coconut milk and kaffir lime leaves and filled with red and green bell peppers.
The menu’s appetizer selection strays from Thai cuisine and features ubiquitous Asian dishes such as crab rangoons and gyoza, which seem unnecessary.
The Thai appetizers are delightful. Tod mun pla are crispy-fried fish cakes made with red curry paste that impart a soft heat while kaffir lime leaves add an herbal punch. The cakes are served with a cucumber and onion relish studded with crushed peanuts. The sauce is sweet and tart and counters the fish cakes’ slow burn. Also good is Thai-style jerky, in which dried strips of pork or beef are fried and served with a dipping sauce of fish sauce, chili flakes and toasted rice.
Alcohol is not served, but Thai iced tea provides a cooling respite against waves of spice. Brewed daily, the tea is strong and sweet, heavy with the flavors of cardamom with a slight tang of tamarind. A splash of half and half turns the drink orange and a squeeze of lime adds a welcome burst of citrus.
The restaurant is tucked in a strip mall, but blinking lights and a colorful awning make it hard to miss. The restaurant’s walls are emblazoned with colorful murals, and potted plants create a tropical vibe.
On my last visit, the room was filled with eager diners digging into curries and stir-fries, all intermittently wiping their brows between hungry smiles. Secret Thai won’t be secret for long.