Spice - Union Square
60 University Street at 10th Ave
-also- Chelsea: 199 8th Avenue between 19th and 20th street
-and- Uptown: 1141 Second Avenue between 73rd and 74tt street
I met a friend after work at Spice, a Thai restaurant just south of Union Square. I’m usually skeptical of chain restaurants like Spice. When a restaurant starts to franchise, the focus often turns away from individuality and towards a highly-produced replica of the things that made the prototype money. The food isn’t necessarily better or worse, but it is interchangeable. (Compare, for example, the feeling and tastes of the bakery at the end of your block and the Cosi on the end of every block.) But certainly some chains must defy the stereotype, right?
Spice has three locations and a few other affiliated restaurants (Sea and Peep) scattered across Manhattan. The décor at each is glossy and hyper modern – angular white plastic furniture accented by neon lights. Walking towards our table, I felt weary with over-production - everything seemed obsessively planned. The one overlooked detail was spatial design - the tables in the University Street location were tightly packed together, requiring minor contortion skills to avoid tripping over a chair leg.
Our waitress offered to take our coats and handed us dinner menus. I was pleased to find several, if somewhat obvious, vegetarian options: Crispy Spring Rolls ($4) Tofu Rama (sautéed veggies and tofu in peanut sauce for $7) and vegetable curry (also $7) alongside the Thai Volcanic Chicken ($11) and the Maekong Aged Porkchop ($9). I chose the vegetarian Pad Thai ($8) - reasoning that the overall quality of a Thai restaurant’s food can be reflected best by its signature dish.
Shortly after ordering, a conical pile of Pad Thai was set before me by a friendly waiter. (To Spice's credit, the wait staff was surprisingly warm for such sleek surroundings.) I was immediately fascinated by a thin green plant sticking out of my noodles, like a feather in a cap. Was it edible? I wondered. I lightly squeezed – it was supple. A large scallion? A garlic scape? A tentative nibble brought back an unpleasant childhood memory when, out of curiosity, I snuck a bite from a carnation stem in a bouquet sitting on my mother’s kitchen table. Ok, just a garnish – moving on.
The Pad Thai itself was decent - well cooked noodles coated but not dripping in a slightly sweetened sauce, served with a fat lime wedge (which proved a much more practical garnish). The tiny cubes of soft tofu tasted vaguely of jasmine, which was a pleasant surprise.
The otherwise agreeable dish, however, fell prey to a vegetarian Pad Thai faux pas, however: fish sauce. Thai restaurants often include traditional fish sauce in their “vegetarian” noodle dishes. Some vegetarians are content to turn a blind eye to this transgression. A friend and college housemate of mine made an exception for fish sauce. “It’s just a tablespoon in the whole dish” he’d say sheepishly, stirring his sauce. “It just doesn’t taste right without it.” My palate isn’t so forgiving. I cannot be certain the Pad Thai at Spice had fish sauce (next time I’ll ask), but the sauce’s slight fishiness was a distraction.
Overall, If you're looking for a decent but not particularly memorable meal (and hey, sometimes that's enough) then Spice is as good as any other. In fact, though I only tried one of Spice's three restaurants, the same could likely be said for any of them. Personally, I am content to leave Spice’s other locations unexplored.