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East Bay - Won Thai – No tie, a winner

Krys | May 19, 200504:32 AM

I have had many delicious dishes here, but I am going to start with the first dish that moved this restaurant to another level for me – the coconut ice cream.

It was like eating a handful of fresh fallen snow – exactly that fresh texture, exactly that refreshing. There were a few peanut halves sprinkled on the ice cream and it was topped with a palm nut, as red as a maraschino cherry. It was $1.50 for this wonderfulness.

A vase with a beautiful heirloom rose is on each table. They are from the owner’s garden as are some of the herbs and vegetables served in the restaurant.

The tasty blackened grilled chicken is faintly tinged yellow from Thai spices. It was enhanced with a side of a sweet red chili sauce. The menu says that the chicken is garnished with vegetable which just means the chicken half, chopped into about six pieces, is served on top of a lettuce leaf.

An order of Japanese eggplant with fresh chili, onion, and basil was meltingly tender and sweet. It was excellent with the chicken.

The eggplant is one of the specials. However, the specials card is laminated and the owner said they don’t change much. Occasionally they will clip a special of the night to the menu.

Two generous pieces of salmon on top of whole fried asparagus spears were covered with a red curry sauce with coconut milk swirls and a chiffonade of kaffir lime leaves. What was so outstanding about this dish was how perfectly the salmon was cooked, very tender.

The spice level is not as assertive as Ruen Pair. Medium spice at Won Thai is comparable to mild at Ruen Pair. Mild only hints at spiciness. The salmon is one dish that is better with the mild curry because of the delicate taste of the salmon and asparagus.

However, the lack of heat lets the complexity of the flavors in the sauces star.

In a recent Contra Costa Times review (link below), there are four paragraphs that lovingly describe the chicken Ha Nu Man Klug Foon (Monkey Puts His Face in the Dust). Not my favorite food writer, but this time he nailed the description of the chicken.

“The chicken version features breast meat cut against the grain, which keeps it fine-grained and tender … flavors are both explosive and composed, layers of salt and heat and lightly toasted garlic and anisey basil that enhance, rather than obscure, the taste of chicken.”

The article has some good descriptions of the other dishes as well, a profile of the owners and why the ‘Monkey puts his face in the dust’ is called that.

I so agree when he says the food has “bright flavors presented with solid culinary accomplishment”.

Next to many of the dishes it is noted that they can be prepared for vegetarians.

The restaurant was originally located in Berkeley. There are a half dozen glowing reviews of the restaurant on the walls from that time. The owners retired, missed the business and opened up a slightly scaled back version in Hercules.

I learned about Won Thai from a Bay Area chef who has consulted on the opening of many Chowhound favorite restaurants. He raved about it. I mention this because I know nothing about Thai food. So some people with more experience than I have, back this up.

We tried all the desserts and liked the sweet sticky rice with a choice of fresh mango slices or Thai custard.

Four halves of bananas were coated with a thick sweet batter that had a very crispy shell.

As to other dishes I tried, I used the reviews on the walls as guides. One of my favorites is the gingery beef pad king stir fried with onions, mushrooms, broccoli, green onion and fresh ginger.

Other suggestions from past reviews include:

Miang Kum – peanut, ginger, lime, chili, roasted coconut, and dry shrimp served with spinach and coconut sauce.

Pad Pek Ped Ped – Broccolli, cauliflower, and cabbage with a choice of meat or seafood stirfried with garlic and hot chili.

Pra Nung Num Ma Now – Steamed fish in spicy Thai chili, garlic and lime juice.

There are also two delicious sounding weekend dishes on my ‘to try’ list:

Sri Kong Moo Ob – Tender spareribs simmered in Soy Sauce, Black Pepper and sweet peas.

Kang Mus Sa Man – Beef simmered in red curry with coconut milk and peanut.

The chef who recommended Won Thai also liked the Tom Yum (described in review below) and the Tom Ka Gai.

The only dish I thought Ruen Pair did much better was the green papaya salad. At Won Tai the papaya had the texture of glass noodles and not much was going on taste wise. It was nice texturally when wrapped in the lettuce leaves.

A few other nits include the fact that the eggplant included pork, but there wasn’t much pork in the dish. Not really a nit, just a comment. The grilled chicken was almost dry, but the sweet chili sauce added the moistness that made the dish work so well. It reminded me of tandoori chicken in terms of texture. I am definitely ordering the chicken again.

In the reviews written when the restaurant was in Berkeley there were a number of delicious dishes based on old family recipes. I was told they could not be special ordered because the kitchen at the Hercules location is smaller and not able to accommodate these recipes.

I have dined at the restaurant at lunch and dinner. Dinner is better because the wife is in the kitchen. While lunch was good, she just has the magic touch that makes very good dishes great. The dishes also hold up well to take out. The car is filled with the most amazing and delicious aromas. It is difficult to make it home without sneaking a taste.

This is the suburbs which, sorry, has a larger segment of people who don’t want to go out of their comfort zone. Yet, even those people are at this busy restaurant. The underlying ingredients are that good.

One regular who stated over and over … no spicy … chowed happily on the grilled chicken. He substituted the peanut sauce for the sweet chili sauce. Even though this is NOT a hot sauce, it had the word chili in it so …

There are restaurants that suddenly make me interested in cuisines that previously bored me. I never was that excited about Thai. After eating at Won Thai, I’m interested.

844 Willow Ave
Hercules, Ca

Easy exit off of I-80. Take Willow Exit. At the stop light at the end of the exit you will see the strip mall that has Won Thai.

Closed Mondays.
Lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays
Dinner: 5-9:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays


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