The first time I ever tried Thai kaeng pa I sort of had to fight for it. After hearing my order, the server countered in a sort of bored tone, as if he did it all the time, "That's different from other curries. You want one of these." And with his pen he pointed out on the menu the ones with coconut milk in them. I was surprised for a moment—I'd never had a server pretty much tell me "no" before, and I hadn't even mentioned coconut milk—and then I stubbornly ordered it anyway. (It was pretty good.)
Maybe it was this memory of an epic divide between curries with coconut milk and curries without that spurred me to try something last week. I went to Rosded, a tiny old-timer of a restaurant that's been around since 1976 in Lincoln Square. I decided to start with something you'll only find on the regular English menu, a coconut milk-drenched green curry with salmon ($9.50), and then I ordered something only available if you know about the Thai-language menu, the kaeng pa with fish balls ($8). (I used this helpful translation.)
Salmon is not, as far as I'm aware, something you'd haul out of the country's gulf waters, but its rich pink flesh has always paired nicely with regional ingredients like lemongrass, galangal, garlic, and lime. The fish was served as a whole fillet, seared until well done, then topped with a thick-as-gravy curried coconut milk. While the overall effect was a little salty, the green curry paste was of excellent quality, while the herbs were fresh and bright.
Next, the kind woman who took my order didn't steer me away from the kaeng pa, which I took as a good sign, although she did check on me several times after she brought it out, asking me worriedly if it was too spicy. 'Too' is a tricky word. I'll admit that after a couple of sips of this watery broth, all the sweat and tear glands in my face opened wide and started dripping. But you know how it goes; for some, spice is a pleasurable pain.
Overall I found this dish, which is also known as "jungle curry" for its roots in forested northern Thailand, incredibly complex and aromatic. The soup was perfumed with kaffir leaf and young green peppercorn, and yielded a grassy, slightly sour flavor. The dumpling-like fish balls, which Rosded makes in-house, are a mild oasis in this unique and searing sea, with a hint of white pepper and light chew. Tiny green-skinned wild eggplant, green papaya, generously sliced chilies, and pretty sprigs of peppercorn were simple, authentic additions.
Together, I think, these dishes show how Rosded has stuck around for so long—by deftly catering to the tastes of immigrants and others seeking authentic Thai food, while paying equal attention to the quality of comprehensible, adapted dishes you can bring the whole family to, no matter how picky.