I just had a most unsettling experience that I must vent to my fellow food lovers. About 10 years ago Thai Bistro opened in Canton Michigan, which is a bedroom community for some of Detroit's suburbs (yes, in Detroit, even the suburbs have suburbs). It was very well reviewed in the Ann Arbor paper and I checked it out, enjoying my meal very much. I had cause to be in Canton last night and had heard that Thai Bistro had become one of the most popular restaurants in the area. This did not surprise me since good restaurants in the Detroit area are few and far between, to say nothing of good Thai food in a place like Canton. So I arranged to meet friends there for dinner.
It is not uncommon for good restaurants to go down hill. But this deterioration usually follows a standard trajectory: the service becomes slow, the decor runs down, the chef uses cheaper ingredients and gets sloppy in the preparation. Thai Bistro had become lousy in a more unusual, but yet quintessentially American way. Over time it had adjusted itself to the marketplace. It was as if some mad scientist in their kitchen had invented a culinary flavor vacuum extractor which left the texture and visual appearance of the food untouched, yet rendered it utterly bland. Perhaps they were making money hand over fist, extracting all the flavor from their food, selling the distilled flavor to Thai restaurants in Chicago (which would explain a lot), and then selling the de-flavored remnants to their naive customers at handsome prices.
There are two elements that make this story more interesting (I hope) than just another rant against a bad restaurant. The first is how popular Thai Bistro is. We arrived for an early dinner at 5:45 and were lucky to get a table. The place was packed with a line out the door until the time we left at 7:30. The second was the lone exception to the flavor vacuum principle, which was heat (spiciness). You could specify how hot you wanted your food, and everything was fairly scaled down for American tastes, but there were some hot peppers floating around in the sauces that gave them a little kick. Taken together I detect an interesting marketing strategy. Thai Bistro has hit that marketing balance. They are selling an exotic experience, but the food is only slightly different from what their customers are used to. So, the food looks very interesting in colorful sauces and with unusual sounding ingredients. But all Thai spices and all fish sauce is omitted, because the Canton population is not used to these flavors and doesn't want anything "weird" in their food. Hot peppers are available because heat has become much more familiar to American palates recently, and is seen by many as the litmus test of culinary authenticity. By making hot dishes available, some people trained on Mexican food will like them, and even those who don't order them will feel assured that they are getting a "real Thai experience." For Thai food lovers, the effect is a little surreal. But for the Canton clientele, the effect is an exotic experience that leaves their palates pleasantly unchallenged.