No tie in Thai dining showdown

Thai Palace, winner of our Thai showdown. Photo by George Cady/george.cady@marquette.edu

Let’s have an entrepreneurial debate. If you owned a business, would you put it right next to a competitor who makes the exact same thing you do?

While basic logic and economics would advise otherwise, somehow over the course of Milwaukee history, Old World Third Street ended up with two dueling Thai restaurants right next to each other: The King and I, part of Milwaukee’s limited Thai scene for almost two decades, and Thai Palace, a smaller, slightly newer restaurant.

Naturally, one has to be better than the other, and there was only one way to find out which — do it “Food Wars” style and try both.

The verdict? Though it’s physically dwarfed by the looming façade of The King and I, Thai Palace is the giant when it comes to both service and food.

Featuring a more modest and intimate setting than its rival, replete with an eccentric, colorful Thai decor, Thai Palace boasts customer service that borders obsessive-compulsive — but in a good way.

Thanks to the ever-attentive waitstaff, our water glasses were never less than half full, and if something doesn’t please your picky palate — for example, the spiciness of your dish — they are more than happy to modify it to meet your needs.

While The King and I offered satisfactory service, its larger seating capacity worked against it. The waitstaff did take the time to attend to the needs of customers, but only did the barest minimum, resulting in impersonal and infrequent service.

Foodwise, both restaurants do a great job of staying true to Thai cuisine. Each offers authentic dishes along a gradient of spiciness ranging from entrées that merely tickle the taste buds to ones that’ll make you want to plunge your face into a koi pond to assuage the blisteringly hot sensation.

Already down by a few points, The King and I lost a few more for its menu. While there was definitely more to choose from there than at Thai Palace, the greater selection was mirrored by greater prices — and that’s not a “good” greater. Entrées at The King and I consistently cost about $2 more than a comparable dish at Thai Palace.

However, all of this is secondary to the ultimate factor in deciding which restaurant is better: taste.

Since The King and I touts itself as “home to the original Volcano Chicken,” it was only fair to stack that dish against the Thai Palace’s version. Lightly battered chicken smothered in succulent spicy “volcano sauce” on a bed of cabbage, carrots and other steamed vegetables, the Volcano Chicken is a must-have for diners at either restaurant. If you’re not a fan of five-alarm fires in your mouth, don’t worry — diners can select the spiciness of their dish at both restaurants.

For those aiming for spice without compromising flavor, selecting the “Medium” Volcano Chicken is the way to go at both restaurants. Though the sauce’s spices instantly assault your sinuses, the sweet ingredients mixed in counteract it to produce a calm after the storm of spicy flavor.

But in spite of its claim of originality, the Volcano Chicken was all presentation and no substance at The King and I. At the steep price of $16.49, the dish included a sparing amount of chicken cuts among a small bed of vegetables with a meager amount of volcano sauce covering only the chicken and a few vegetables.

For only $14.95, Thai Palace provided a much larger Volcano Chicken — about double the size of The King and I’s entrée — with a generous helping of Volcano Sauce that completely marinated the chicken and vegetables. The flavor was about the same, making this a much better bet.

Another worthy menu item at both restaurants is the Tom Kha Gai soup, an invigorating and spicy blend of coconut milk, lime juice, straw mushrooms, galangal and slices of chicken. Again, Thai Palace wins the price war: it’s only $3.50 there but $4.50 next door at The King and I.

And if you really want to be fiscally responsible, the Thai Palace’s all-you-can-eat lunch buffet is the best bargain of all. From 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. weekdays, you can splurge on all the Volcano Chicken and Tom Kha Gai you want for only $7.50 — a fraction of the dinner price.

Though this Thai showdown was hard-fought, it’s clear that Thai Palace had cheaper prices, more for your money, better service and a more down-to-earth atmosphere.

In true underdog fashion, Thai Palace proved it’s earned its place on Old World Third Street despite bigger — but not better — competition.