Elaine Labalme is a journalist and writer who never fails to find the fun in food. She has been on the food and travel beat for more than 20 years. Her more serious side finds her advocating for causes including improving air quality in the region and putting an end to gun violence. The transplanted San Franciscan is working on her second book and tackles writer’s block with bike rides on the riverfront trails followed by a visit to The Milkshake Factory.
The patio at Nicky’s Thai Kitchen on the Northside is one of those things I wouldn’t want to live without. At Nicky’s, I’m transported to a tropical realm replete with palm trees, bright pink blooms and masses of ivy dripping down a bamboo wall. A fountain gurgles at the center and harmonizes with the birds outside.
I’ve brought my 14-year-old son, Stevo, and his gal pal, Caroline, for an urban ramble that starts with lunch. Perusing the menu, my foodie son spots the Mango Tilapia and has a burning question.
“Is the mango fresh?” he asks our server.
Receiving an affirmative response, he orders the tilapia and I fall into a mango madness of my own, surely helped by the lush setting.
“I’ll have the Chili Mango Scallop, please, but not too hot.”
We settle on heat index three for me and Caroline proceeds to order the Gaprow Lad Kao, which she can’t pronounce and neither can we. Caroline also asks for three and we are, well, three for three. I also order the Vegetable 4 U appetizer. Our lunch entrees come with soup or salad and we all choose greens.
“I like how they top it with peanuts,” says Caroline, and the nuts aren’t even the best part of the salad. Our iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, carrots and peanuts are resting on a puddle of pineapple dressing that is positively addictive.
The veggies 4 U arrive and 4 me, it’s the spring rolls that are calling. I bite into one and feel like I’m eating the trees all around but in a good way. Clearly, the kitchen did not skimp on parsley. Caroline picks up a samosa and takes a bite.
“These are weird. But good.”
I try one and marvel at the lightness of the dough and richness of the filling, composed of sweet potato, peas, carrot and mint.
Our mains arrive and we take pix of our dishes. Caroline takes six pix and texts them to Stevo, who is sitting right in front of her. He takes a few and texts two back.
My scallop dish is absolutely beautiful but one thing is missing: a knife. How else to cut those mini-corns all over the place? Our server re-appears and promptly obliges. Along with tender scallops and need-a-knife corn, my dish features onion, red and green bell pepper, mushrooms, carrots and fresh mango. A mound of white rice is at one end of the plate and it all rests on a reddish broth. The mild heat of my food reminds me that I’m sitting on a balmy patio in 80-degree heat. The sensations are complementary and pleasant.
Caroline is working her way through a plateful of white rice topped with ground beef that’s crowned with a fried egg. Red and green bell pepper provide color.
Stevo is up next: “This dish is very much like sweet and sour pork except it’s sweet and sour fish. But there’s a lot more vegetables than fish on the plate.”
I remind my son that Asian restaurants aren’t the only ones to go light on the protein in favor of everything else. He washes down his food with a second glass of mango juice (not fresh).