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Thai Palace is hot _ but not too hot

I smiled sweetly at my dinner companion.

"Would it embarrass you if I fell over on the table and licked my plate?" I asked him in my most ingratiating way. I couldn't bear the thought of letting even one morsel of that devine deboned Panang duck ($12.95) go back to the kitchen.

Of course, I didn't lick my plate. My mama taught me better.

Besides, waiting to be devoured was a steaming bowl of gang daeng ($6.95) _ red curry made of cream of coconut, green pepper, bamboo shoots, pineapple and Thai sweet basil _ and satay ($4.95), skewered strips of chicken marinated in coconut milk, with palm sugar and cucumber sauce or sweetish peanut sauce for dipping.

And I'd already made a fool of myself over the yum neau ($5.95), a spicy salad of lettuce, tomatoes, onions, cucumber and bits of charbroiled tenderloin steak drenched in Thai herbs and lime marinade.

I won't even go into the tom yum goong or tom kha gai soups ($2.95 apiece), the first a lime broth, the other a lemony coconut milk soup with a fish sauce base, which had started our meal.

Thai food is relatively new arrival on my food "want" list. I've had some tearful experiences with it, times when the infamous hot-with-pepper dishes made my nose turn red and my eyes water at socially inconvenient times. I like spicy food, but some Thai cooks overdo it, and my tongue (to say nothing of my lower intestinal tract) rebels.

So it was with some trepidation that I took a caller's advice to try out the 2-month-old Thai Palace in Holiday. The marquee touting "steaks and seafood," instead of Thai cuisine, didn't help matters, nor did the plain exterior that, despite renovations, still looks like the hamburger joint it once was.

Never fear. The exterior and interior, though spotless and functional, are mere trappings. All that matters is concentrated in the kitchen, where co-owner and chef Siang Maliwuan, a native of Thailand, holds sway. A longtime restaurateur in Nebraska, Colorado, Texas and Arkansas, Maliwuan and partner Suntaree Ongkhae bought their Holiday restaurant only after a long search for the right place.

Maliwuan's aim is to please, not punish, the palate. His Thai dishes are assertive, rather than aggressive; tasty, rather than torrid; savory, rather than scorching. Siang Maliwuan understands delicate Pasco tummies and adjusts his pepper shaker accordingly. (Use the bowl of pepper sauce on every table to revive fainters, never as a garnish.)

My taste buds were my guide. My dining companion, however, is a Thai food aficionado who could identify each ingredient, from fish sauce base to the aromatic kiffir lime leaves to galingale, a milder form of ginger.

The soups were interesting _ not perfect, but good enough to satisfy a craving and certainly a fine introduction to this unusual cuisine.

The salad, which was ordered medium-hot, delivered the promised kick to the lips and tongue and got our taste buds to tingle for more.

The true stars were our entrees, on this and a previous visit to Thai Palace. One experienced dinner guest, who had recently spent a couple of years prowling Boston's best Thai diners, pronounced the curry "the best I've ever had." Our aficionado remarked that the Panang duck was properly crisp on the outside, succulent on the inside, with a rich red curry, fresh chili on a bed of spinach and kiffer lime leaf the equivalent of fine icing on a great cake.

Vegetarians will find plenty to celebrate here, too. The "Lost in the Woods" sauteed snow peas, baby corn, carrots, mushrooms, broccoli and onion swimming in a rich, delicate spicy sauce, topped with plenty of crisp, roasted cashew nuts ($6.95), was better than any T-bone I've ever ordered. There are eight choices under the "vegetarian" section, with other meatless choices throughout the lengthy menu.

Even good old standard pad thai ($6.95), rice noodles stir fried with shrimp, chicken and vegetables, had an unexpected reddish coating of a peanut sauce that made this staple worthy of being a full meal.


Thai Palace

Located at 2616 U.S. 19 in Holiday (east side, between Moog Road and Darlington Road). Open 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day. Lunch specials $4.95 and $5.95; dinner entrees from $5.95 to $15.95, including rice. Wheelchair friendly.