'Um, Mike . . . are you sure you've got the right address?"
"Well, this is where Craig said to come, so it must be here somewhere."
Marilyn, the out-of-town guest of my pal, Mike, can be forgiven for wondering if her boyfriend was lost. As they headed west on Tasker Street, the 1500 block's weathered-brick rowhouses rolled by until they stopped in front of 1516. At the corner of tiny Hicks Street, a take-out window called Circles clad in seafoam-green paneling was doing a brisk business. It was not, at first glance, any different from the dozens of Chinese takeouts shielded in bulletproof glass that dot the lower-income neighborhoods of Philadelphia. (A few years ago it was, in fact, one of the multitudes known as "No. 1 Chinese.")
"Wait a second!" said Mike, as he spotted a young Thai woman exiting the back of the building and crossing the street with a tray capped by a plastic dome. "There's the dining room!"
Yes, indeed. Just to their left at 1514, on the opposite corner of Hicks, was the crisp brown awning and tidy, almost sleek, dining room of Circles Lounge, the six month-old BYO that has all of Yelp-istan in a froth of coconut-curried heat - "amazing!" "awesome!" "Best Thai in Philly!"
For a little perspective, "Best Thai in Philly" is not an especially high bar. Thai food has long been one of our dining blind spots, and despite a sudden influx of new options, none have thrilled me (though the roast duck at Sawatdee on South Street was memorably tender).
Much of the enthusiasm here certainly comes from locals of this deep South Philly enclave, the self-named "Newbold" section of Point Breeze, which has seen a steady uptick in energy, from the rising tide of resident hipsters to the growing Indonesian community to the steady Mexican influence evidenced by the lines in front of the San Lucas bodega half a block away, where one night a street vendor was piling plate-sized chicharrones high with toppings like tostadas.
But Circles can stand on its own as a draw. And given our modest standards for the genre, it may very well sit atop Philly's humble pad Thai heap. Bangkok-born chef and owner Alex Boonphaya's rendition of that dish is in fact Exhibit A: The snappy rice noodles are glazed in a deeply complex sweet-sour sauce of tamarind and palm sugar, with a hovering fish-sauce funk, and dried chile spice that rides a slow fuse until it snaps on the tip of your tongue. A slice of green mango offers a quenching respite, bringing an approving smile from my guest, Marilyn, who spent childhood years in Thailand.
There were numerous other dishes to like. A stew of kabocha pumpkin chunks and superbly tender morsels of beef came in a creamy red curry vibrant with galangal and lemongrass. The crunchy threads of green papaya salad were exotic and refreshing, with the fermented sour and edgy spice that comes from mashing the garlic, fish sauce, chiles, and lime juice together ("Pok-pok!" goes the mortar and pestle). Tender pads of pork with snappy green beans in pad kaprow glistened with garlicky brown gravy that radiated the fragrant minty punch of Thai basil. It's a spice-bomb - especially if you go "Thai hot" - that evokes memories for Boonphaya, 32, of his childhood as a 12-year-old immigrant, toting those aromatic home-cooked lunches to his new school in Florida.
Boonphaya's circuitous path to Circles is intriguing, from his culinary training at Le Cordon Bleu in Orlando, to a rediscovery journey to Thailand, in which he immersed himself in the intricacies of handmade curries, to his subsequent stint as a restaurateur in Tampa (with Chalalai), to a disastrously brief restaurant moment (two days!) in Elkins Park.
Boonphaya says he lost an $80,000 investment in that space (currently Tiffin) which failed, he said, due to violations by the previous owner that he was unaware of. Without the funds to fix the problems, he abandoned his suburban dreams and worked at the Four Seasons until a new prospect arose.
It appeared in the guise of this humble South Philly takeout, which, after six months of slow business, finally gained momentum, and led to his cross-street expansion in the spring.
It's an unconventional path, for sure, but one that has rewarded this rising neighborhood on the urban fringe with a go-to contemporary ethnic haunt.
My enthusiasm is only mildly tempered by the reality of this start-up's limitations. The service has ranged wildly, from with-it youngsters fully capable of explaining the specials and working Circles' espresso machine and ReAnimator pour-over coffee bar to waitresses with little sense of timing or ability to communicate the food in English, let alone keep the sauce-splattered tables tidy. When all those giant white mod plates arrive at the same time, one can only hope there's an empty table nearby to hold the feast.
Boonphaya's kitchen also had some lesser efforts. The chicken-and-rice soup was dull (I much prefer the porridge he serves at brunch). The scallion beggars' purses wrapped in steamed rice noodles were gummy. The corn fritters were encased in a puck of thick crust and oozing, oddly, with Gouda cheese. The spring rolls were too loosely packed. The thick piece of salmon that came with our pad Thai was seared to oblivion (best to order the plump shrimp). And the chicken satay was a bit overcooked.
The peanut dipping sauce, though, tinged with the ideal balance of sweet and heat, is good enough to eat by the spoonful. I actually preferred the vegan version of satay with seitan, the soft wheat gluten soaking in the curried coconut-Kaffir lime marinade and a smoky char from the grill far more than the poultry did. Circles has a number of veggie-friendly dishes, including a seitan in garlic sauce (pad gratiem), moist with savory soy gravy topped with crunchy fried garlic.
This is not especially inventive cooking, or even the homage to hard-to-find regional specialties that has distinguished some of the Thai restaurants I know in New York or on the West Coast. But Circles' fresh takes on the classics, built on hand-blended curry pastes, distinguish it from the bland coconut soup that too often passes for Thai around here.
I especially loved the massaman curry - its turmeric-yellow, coriander-infused broth not as thick as typical versions, popping with the texture of roasty peanuts against soft potato. Other curries - the red, the Penang - are similar but subtly different.
Boonphaya's authentic touch, meanwhile, also shined in house-made Isaan-style sausages vivid with lemongrass and rice; in the spicy tang of ground pork nam sod salad; in the deeply sour and herbaceous tom kha soup; and in the grilled calamari, so nicely tender, that basked in lime and fish sauce. Also, don't miss the crispy-skinned "Thai rolls" stuffed with ground pork, black mushrooms, and crunchy water chestnuts. The contrast of briny shrimp paste and sweet lumps of crustacean made the crab fried rice addictive, another example of the high-quality ingredients this little cafe uses.
Desserts are not as intriguing, unless gelatinous rice custard is your thing. One exception are the Thai-styled doughnuts, those sugar-dusted, airy half-moons drizzled in coconut milk syrup that by rights should rank high on Philly's reviving doughnut meter. "Good call, my friend," said Mike, licking the sugar from his fingers. "I'm just glad we found it."
Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan hosts an online chat at 2 p.m. Tuesdays at http://go.philly.com/phillytalk.
Contact Craig LaBan at @CraigLaBan on Twitter or firstname.lastname@example.org.