Over 90% of the population of Thailand practices Buddhisim. One of the guiding principles of Buddhism is the Middle Way or the Middle Path—the practice of non-extremism, moderation and avoiding self-indulgence. However, after seeing the menu at Aqua, even the most devout Buddhist would have a hard time practicing restraint.
Aqua is the new Malaysian and Thai BYO on Chestnut near the corner of 7th. For those who like a little oat soda with their Thai cuisine, the location could not be more convenient. The Las Vegas Lounge, which is right across the street, sells six packs to go. (In the interest of full disclosure, my wife and I are friends of the owner of the LVL.) A friend and I grabbed a six of Dos Equis Amber and we were off to Aqua for what would be my third of many visits since it opened.
Aqua’s menu is huge—over sixty tempting entrées (not including appetizers, soups and salads), all at reasonable prices. The size of the menu, I’ll admit, concerned me at first. It seems as though it would be hard to do that many entrées and do them all well. But owners Jim Tran and Mr. Long (also the Chef) have proven otherwise. All of the dishes I’ve tried at Aqua so far (and there have been many) have been polished, sophisticated and consistent.
My friend and I got two appetizers to start. First, we had the Rice Net Spring Rolls—five fried spring rolls with shrimp, crab meat, glass noodle skin and taro crusting served with plum sauce ($6.75). The netting is crisp and light; a refreshing change from the traditional rice paper. The crabs and shrimp are rich and well balanced. The plum sauce is on the lighter side, but it has a welcoming bite.
Our second appetizer was the Shrimp Puff—lightly fried shrimp cakes wrapped with bacon and served with a mayonnaise-based sauce ($6.95). This appetizer is on the heavier side. The fried bacon flavor is prominent, but it works well with the shrimp. I have heard of this dish being served in other restaurants with a chili sauce. But the mayonnaise-based sauce Aqua uses is a smart choice; it balances out the salt in the bacon and brings out the shrimp in ways a light chili sauce could not.
On another occasion, I had the Tom Yum Gai, a spicy lemon grass soup with chili paste, lime, mushrooms and chicken ($3.95). This soup is comfortingly addictive. The snappy, healthful broth with its robust chilis can give you enough warmth to ride out the roughest of Philadelphia’s Winters.
We decided to taste three entrées. First, we had the Beef Rendang, which is tender beef cooked with a paste of ground onion, lemon grass and chilies in a spicy aromatic curry ($12.95). This, by far, is my favorite dish at Aqua. The beef is tender enough to cut with a dull chopstick and it practically melts in your mouth. But as good as the beef is, it doesn’t hold a candle to the curry. The curry is deep and fulfilling, with a slight hint of sweetness to compliment the savory beef. The heat from the chilis is rich and mature—it sustains at a hearty, consistent level beyond the initial bite. Rice, I should note, is a side order at Aqua. The Beef Rendang goes well with the Coconut Rice ($1.25).
Next, we sampled the Thai Lettuce Wraps—crumbled chicken mixed with Thai basil, green peppers, house sauce and fresh lettuce leaves ($8.95). This is a light, healthy dish that screams freshness. The Thai basil and peppers tasted improbably fresh; it was as though they were picked only moments before we were served.
Finally, we tried the Pad Thai, which consists of stir-fried thin flat noodles with shrimp, tofu, bean sprouts topped with crushed peanuts ($8.95). Aqua’s Pad Thai is a rich, filling staple. Fresh and flavorful, this dish is an excellent balance of sweet, sour, salty and spicy.
Aqua’s windows open to the sidewalk, making it a notable place for people-watching from any seat in the house. Like most restaurants, the tables are cozy enough for privacy, yet close enough for friendly conversations with your neighbors should you choose to engage them (or eavesdrop on them). Believe it or not, I actually overheard someone at the next table announce to his friends that he did not like my blog. But a few minutes later a family who saw me taking pictures asked me for my website. So, maybe it is possible to find some sort of Middle Path here, even if you do overindulge—which is all too easy to do at Aqua.
705 Chestnut Street