I definitely liked Thep Phanom a lot more the last time I went. It wasn't horrible this time and I was OK with the food, but it wasn't as striking as my last trip and there was definitely a nagging feeling of unfulfillment. If all you care about is good tasting food, this place is great - nice presention, and things are well cooked, fresh ingredients and so on - but I felt that it was not as authentic as my first trip.
I wonder if it was the things that we ordered. Most of the dishes were sauced similarly - the "Thaitantic" beef, the fried whole tipila and the duck. There were subtle differences, but nothing with any major kind of contrast. Each one of us picked a dish and maybe it was a bad coincidence. On the whole the flavors were a bit more earthy and spicy my last time, this time it was mainly sweet basil and lemongrass.
The last time I really loved their fried crab roll special that really impressed me - crab wrapped in a crackling bean curd/tofu skin and an ultra-tender beef salad ("Crying Tiger") that was fairly spicy and very tangy. You could say that the fried whole tipila I had tonight was impressively presented, curled and upright. But not quite up to the soulful standards that I've been taking for granted back home.
So after this trip I'm a bit ambivalent about Thep Phanom.
BTW, we didn't have much problems with service - some of my friends have complained about the way the rushed you out, (and see the recent general topics thread about pet peeves), but it didn't happen to us even though the places was packed. Service was efficient and fast and the check came quickly, but I didn't feel pressured.
I wonder why I have such bad luck with Thai places in SF on the second visit - I loved Khan Toke the first time (great squid salad) but was underwhelmed the second. (OK, Marnee the second time was about the same as Marnee the first time, but I was never really super into the place for some reason.) I hope this isn't going to be a trend for me because it seems that the only place I can count on now is Thanying back home.