I have a Thai food crisis. I don't know of a single good Thai restaurant in the Bay Area, where I do most of my Chowhound-worthy eating on visits. (I live in what is pretty much a Chow-free zone.) The good restaurants have either closed or slipped in quality to compete with the cheap-slop Thai places on just about every corner. Even my one attempt at a Thai restaurant meal in LA proper was less than satisfactory. Maybe if I'd been willing to drive out to the 'burbs...
So I was looking forward to these two meals, having studied Erik M.'s translations. But they turned out quite differently from what I expected.
We arrived at TAC Quick for lunch to find the place empty and the A/C off. An indifferent server slapped down four plastic menus; I asked for the Thai menu, and ordered off it, with some suggestions from the family.
Papaya salad with pickled blue crab arrived in a nice architectural pile, but hadn't been pounded. The papaya was sliced a bit thick, and the dressing was at first sweet and then one-dimensional hot without much complexity. It was all right as restaurant papaya salads go (it avoided being a soggy pile of shreds), but we have had better versions at the Berkeley and LA Thai temples. That sweet note continued through some of the other dishes; it dominated the broth in the rice noodles with duck, and the kids just ate the noodles and duck. I thought the Issan-style sausage was good, as was the minced chicken with deep-fried basil leaves over preserved duck eggs, but the rest of the family proclaimed the sausage and eggs just okay, and I had to eat most of them. (That left them to scrape half of the minced chicken out of the lettuce leaf which unnecessarily formed the bottom of the dish, not an easy task.) Probably the dish which met with the most favour overall was the "pad thai" with mung-bean noodles in omelet, which took familiar elements and reconfigured them into something new and great. But the lacklustre service and negative atmosphere detracted from the experience and left us with a faint sense of disappointment.
I almost didn't schedule a trip to Spoon Thai after that, but we did end up going for lunch on our last full day in town. The setting was pleasant (this does not matter that much to me, but it doesn't hurt) and we were given the Thai menu as well as the one with the "lunch specials" and standard dishes. But the translated Thai menu was from 2005. I had studied the 2006 menu and picked out five dishes, none of which were there. When the server came, I gave her what I had written out, and she deciphered it and wrote out the Thai equivalents.
The whole family agreed that this meal was fantastic, the best Thai meal we have had in years. My younger daughter was in a bit of a snit before the meal and resented not having a choice, saying she didn't want any fish or anything with coconut milk in it. I put a piece of the catfish steamed in coconut-milk custard on her plate; she tried it, and then quietly served herself a large portion. I'd found this dish at the LA Thai temple, but this version was superior. My older daughter kept returning to the roasted duck curry and my wife to the jungle curry with shrimp, which had excellent flavour and a good selection of vegetables including little round Thai eggplants. The banana blossom salad (quite different from the last rendition we had, which was Vietnamese) was quickly finished. But the real surprise was fried rice with Gouramy fish, a dish I never would have thought to order (would not even have known about, were it not for Erik M.). This had real diced vegetables, not frozen ones from a bag, and bite-sized boneless bits of fish fried with the skin on, surrounded by rice that had been slightly undercooked and then fried lightly so that it was slightly crispy and not mushy. Writing this out at home now, I am tempted to open another browser window and start looking at flights.
Thank you, Chicago, for treating us so well, and Chowhounds for sharing. We can't wait to return and eat some more. --PR
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