by Karen Green

Lemongrass is hot. They rate their spiciness from one to 20--but don't even think of ordering anything in the double digits. I've watched my tongue shrivel up and fall off after doing battle with a dish rated at a pathetic five. On one of many occasions the owner explained the rating system to me (I'm certain he must perform this same oratory 10 times every night), he told me the kitchen doesn't even start adding the extra-spicy Thai pepper until level seven--and no one besides the employees orders anything that hot.

But spice is not the end of the story at Lemongrass. Apparently, it's nearly impossible to order a dish off the Lemongrass menu that is not outstanding. The basis of Thai cuisine--achieving a perfect balance of sweet, sour, salty, and spicy--may sound simple. Lemongrass dishes, however, aspire to more than just a delicate harmony of basic flavors. The Garlic & Basil Tofu, with a dark, tangy, and robustly sweet sauce, features seasonal vegetables such as jicama and Chinese cabbage, and huge flavorful leaves of basil. The tofu arrives with a thick outer layer of crispiness and a soft inside, absorbing the flavors of the sauce like no other tofu I've tried. The vegetables maintain a perfect crisp, displaying the cooking expertise of an Iron Chef.

Likewise, the Tofu Chili Paste is subtly sweet, succulent, and spicy, made with oil, but in no way greasy. Standards like the Green Curry Chicken trump other Thai fare. The curry features a simple blend of spices in a thin but rich, creamy coconut milk sauce, with chicken so tender and white, you'll want to take another order home. As an appetizer, the fish cakes, served with a sweet & sour cucumber salad sauce, are spectacular.

Be warned, however, of the two consistent complaints I hear about Lemongrass--extremely slow service and non-acceptance of credit cards. My response: Get over it! Food this good is always worth the wait. And having to plan ahead and bring cash is a trifling inconvenience.

One legitimate complaint, however, is that although Lemongrass prepares the best Thai food in Portland, everything on the menu seems just a little too expensive. Pad Thai with Prawns at lunch is $8.50, dinner is $10.50. And though the plate is filled with a generous helping of prawns, I don't feel comfortable shelling out more than $7 for a pile of noodles. The same disease afflicts another of my favorite Portland restaurants, the downtown Pho Van. It should be noted that both of these restaurants are housed in rather elegant locations; Lemongrass occupies a stately Victorian with period light fixtures and beautiful woodwork. This is fine if you're going to dinner with the intent to propose marriage, but it's harder to swallow if you just want a delicious meal.

Ultimately, though, it all comes back to this: Lemongrass is simply superior to all other Thai places in town (although you could make a case for Khun Pic on Belmont), so I always find myself returning there. And if you do find yourself complaining over a measly $1.50, don't blame Lemongrass, blame George Bush for ruining our economy.