Little Spice, a Creative Standout Amid the Chains
By Nancy Lewis
Thursday, January 25, 2007
In the neighborhood around Arundel Mills mall, there is a smorgasbord of chain restaurants, with seemingly one of almost every national brand.
But a few blocks away -- across Route 100 on Dorsey Road -- Thai sisters Lawan Fuangphon, known as Noi, and Wanlapa Fuangphon, known as Nid, preside over their Little Spice restaurant, which is an oasis of originality.
The year-old Little Spice is at the edge of a commercial and business park in the midst of a forest of offices. It can be difficult to see from the main road, tucked behind a Shell gas station, but it's worth hunting for.
A small and brightly colored vestibule leads to a soothing dining room, decorated in a soft slate blue. Arrive at lunch, and almost before you can take a seat, a server arrives with a steaming bowl of fragrant jasmine rice soup. Although there is an extensive menu, most luncheon diners opt for one of the 25 combination specials (chicken, beef, pork or tofu for $6.95, and duck, shrimp or squid for $7.95) that include the soup and a small dessert.
You can be in and out the door in 30 minutes or so and never feel rushed. The service is quick and attentive. It's no wonder that Little Spice has become a favorite of nearby office workers.
Lawan Fuangphon is the driving force behind Little Spice. Educated as a graphic designer, she has a passion for cooking. "I learned mostly from my mother," she said, though she also had some professional training. She is the chef and overall manager of the restaurant. Her sister Wanlapa Fuangphon, who works full time as a benefits specialist at Washington Adventist Hospital, helps out mostly at night and on weekends.
"I try to talk to my customers, to explain things to them and to find out what they like," Lawan Fuangphon said. "I use the freshest ingredients and cook as my mother taught me."
Lawan Fuangphon's design and graphics background permeates Little Spice, beginning with the colorful menu. My husband, who doesn't always share my enthusiasm for Asian food, said Little Spice's menu is the first he has seen that makes any sense to him. Inside the front cover is a short glossary of terms and ingredients used in Thai cooking. After a long list of appetizers, other dishes are grouped primarily by preparation -- soup, noodles and fried rice, stir fried dishes, curries. Most of these dishes can be prepared with chicken, pork, tofu, beef, duck, shrimp, squid or scallops. There also are two sections, one that lists only duck specialties, the other only fish. The number of combinations seems limitless.
Each table is also set artfully -- with tablecloths of differing primary colors, straw mats, a single flower and small cubes and showcase photographs of various desserts. Menu items arrive on plates and platters of differing shapes and colors -- a deep green, leaf-shaped platter for the green papaya salad, a square of deep blue for the stubby cigar-shaped spring rolls, triangles of color for main courses.
Although the menu notes dishes that are spicy, my main trouble with Little Spice is that there is, in fact, too little spice. (Lawan Fuangphon says dishes can be modified to be spicy or mild, according to the diner's taste.) The Thai spicy beef salad, Yum Nur, can be mouth-injuring hot at some Thai restaurants; here, it is merely tepid. The same for the green papaya salad, Som Tum; it's bright tasting, but not fiery. But each is beautifully displayed on its platter, adorned with a tangle of red and green cabbage slivers.
Spring rolls are crisp and nearly greaseless, with a savory filling. One of the most interesting appetizers is vegetable tempura, a version of the Japanese original, which includes tasty slices of sweet squash along with the more usual sweet potatoes and green vegetables.
Drunken noodles with chicken, includes both ground and slivered meat, in a not quite-spicy-enough preparation that still was full of flavor.
Stir-fried selections are among the most colorful -- arranged with brilliant green baby snow peas, creamy yellow baby corn, bright green scallions and broccoli.
Stir-fried shrimp with ginger, Pad King, could have used more ginger, and maybe a few more shrimp. Ped Pad King, also needed a bigger punch of ginger, but there was plenty of duck meat, tender and juicy.
Refreshing and not too sweet desserts include jasmine rice pudding, homemade Thai custard and sweet sticky rice and tapioca pudding that was a dessert of the day on the luncheon special. (Fuangphon explained that the dessert of the day is whatever she feels like making that day.)
If you like your Thai food mild, you won't be shocked by anything at Little Spice; if you want it fiery, you'll have to ask that it be kicked up a notch.