Little Spice in Hanover provides beautifully presented, authentic Thai food

This Thai cafe is a terrific place to eat before climbing aboard a long flight at BWI.

The area around BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport is pretty dire, dining wise. If you're arriving home completely famished after a brutal long trip or even just killing time on a long layover between flights, the nearby options involve chain restaurants and grim carry-out joints looking more like fronts for criminal activity than places selling actual food. Or at least so my experience went, until I recently stumbled across Little Spice (1350 Dorsey Road, Suite L, Hanover, [410] 859-0100,

A quick eight-minute drive from BWI's arrival/departure ramps, this spiffy little Thai cafe is a terrific place to fill up on a decent meal before climbing aboard a long flight. The interior is a calm and airy oasis of white-painted Buddhist statuary and wall art, minimalistic yet comfortable decor, and eclectic music over the sound system. Also there is, thank you Jesus, a liquor license for that little pre-flight cocktail buzz. Every visit to Little Spice has featured quick, attentive service and the speedy arrival of our orders—appetizers usually hit the table within five minutes of ordering, even when all the tables are filled.

Little Spice advertises itself as an "authentic Thai kitchen" and everything we've tried there bears out this assertion. Someone back there knows their way around the five fundamental flavors of Thai cuisine: sweet, sour, salty, hot (spicy), and bitter. Presentation is handled as carefully as the cooking, and each plate arrives from the kitchen perfectly arranged around adornments such as miniature orchids or woven palm fronds. Paying attention to each element of a meal—flavor, appearance, aroma, atmosphere, graceful service—adds up to what natives call "sum rap Thai," or "the way Thais eat." Little Spice achieves this essential balance as well as or better than any other Thai restaurant in Baltimore.

Start off with pattaya salad ($7.95), a kind of Thai ceviche featuring a mix of shrimp and fish chunks served atop a lettuce leaf "bowl." It's a simple dish, skillfully executed—the seafood has just the right texture, not soggy from an overly long (i.e., made-yesterday) bask in the lime juice. Chile heat starts low and builds slowly, so by the end of the sizable serving—easily shared by two—you'll be reaching for that Singha beer ($4.75) after every bite. Little Spice also offers a subtle jasmine iced tea ($2.95) that pairs wonderfully with everything I've tried there, as well as freshly prepared young coconut water ($2.95).

Another standout appetizer is the green papaya salad ($7.95), mixing crisp strands of actual green papaya (a type of fruit in its own right, not unripe regular red papaya—too many restaurants try to get away with subbing) with miniature salted shrimp, tomato chunks, haricots vert, and a scattering of peanuts. Fantastic. Curry fish cakes ($7.95) are like exotic cousins to traditional Bmore "coddies"—small patties of ground fish, flour, and egg fried into bouncy crispy perfection, accompanied by pickled cucumber relish and sweet chile-tamarind dipping sauce.

Little Spice's kitchen also has a deft hand with curry. Five different flavors—red, green yellow, masaman, and "jungle"—are available, and the price depends on what you select to go in it. We tried a pork masaman curry ($12.95), a southern Thai dish that marries fatty meat and coconut milk with potatoes. This could be an unbearably heavy combination, but the intricately spiced sauce dances around the rich ingredients to temper things nicely and keep every bite interesting.

But a Thai restaurant is only as good as its noodles. This, alas, is the only place where Little Spice failed to completely delight. Their version of tofu pad thai ($11.95) was gorgeously presented, a heap of steaming noodles studded with scallions, bean sprouts, and chunks of golden fried tofu, served on an angular white platter, everything limned with finely chopped peanuts. A purple orchid blossom completed the tableau—it was possibly the most attractive pad thai I've ever been presented with, and I dug in happily. Unfortunately the kitchen had gone way too far overboard in the direction of sweet flavor—traditional pad thai does involve some sugar, but this was just ridiculously overly sweet. Traditional Thai cooking assumes that every eater will spice their noodles to taste from the traditional condiment tray, which, when we visited, contained phrik pom (chile paste), namm plaa (fish sauce), and phrik dong (chile slices in vinegar), and sometimes white sugar. Liberal applications of the first three could not help right the ship, and my pad thai went mostly uneaten. (The fact that this tray does not arrive automatically at table along with the noodle platter—you have to ask for it—tells me that perhaps noodles likely are not the main focus of Little Spice's menu.) On a second visit I had a very similar experience with drunken noodles with shrimp ($13.95), despite requesting when I ordered that the kitchen seriously restrain the sugar or sweetening in the dish. The house-made flat rice noodles themselves were very nice, however.

Desserts saved the day, both times. Vegans and dairy-vores alike will delight in the velvety texture and delicate flavors of taro pearls in coconut cream ($4.95), but the house-made avocado ice cream ($4.95) is truly captivating. An intricate tango between sweet and savory flavors, it is the perfect ending to an almost-perfect Thai dining experience. Sum rap Thai indeed.

Little Spice is open Monday-Thursday 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. and 4:30 p.m.-9:30 p.m., Friday 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. and 4:30 p.m.-10 p.m., and Saturday 4-9:30 p.m.

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