The thumbs up is rare because I'm usually of the camp that many adept kitchens can put out decent versions of Thai food while few will ever wow (I feel the same way about pho, banh mi, and naan/curry type places).
Bang San managed to be head and shoulders above any Thai restaurant I've visited recently, including Thai House Express and Sai Jai. I can't remember the last time I saw so much care being put into every dish. Everything was made to order with raw ingredients; I didn't see pre-cooked dishes of anything sitting on warming plates.
WHAT I ATE:
Green Papaya Salad: long, thin slivers of the papaya in the usual lime/chili dressing. The papaya was crunchy and fresh, and the dressing had quite a bit of zing to it. The salad was served on a bed of iceberg lettuce with a few slices of tomatoes. I saw a man in the back kitchen slicing the papaya and making the dressing with a giant mortar and pestle after I ordered it. The made to order dressing really shone, since lime juice loses its flavor pretty quickly after being squeezed. I really appreciated the fact that the dressing didn't come out of a bowl or a bottle. Since salads is where I find many casual Thai restaurants lacking, it was great to find a version where such care was put into preparation.
Tom Kha Gai: This is one of my favorite Thai dishes, and this version blew everything else out of the water. Creamy, lemony, and chock full of mushrooms, chicken, and tofu (by my request). Luscious is a good word for this soup, as it was perfectly creamy without even a hint of the curdling that some versions exhibit. I was a little disappointed by its milky white color, but was surprised by how spicy it was despite the lack of red. I usually pour Tom Kha over rice, but I found myself slurping this directly out of the bowl.
The chef was a joy to watch as she juggled my dishes with a few other orders. She would leisurely walk over to each pot or pan, stir it a bit, add whatever she deemed was ready to be incorporated (a chunk of tofu into the fryer, a handful of noodles into the pad thai, a dash of pepper into the soup) and chat with the customers to see if they liked this and that in their food. The whole restaurant smelled amazing, and she was so unfrazzled that I felt comfortable asking her what each thing was.
Pa Nang Beef: Again, the dish was made to order, and included a large portion of beef, mushrooms, peas, bamboo, and bell peppers. She gave me plenty of food, but I found myself lusting after the creamy orange curry. Bang San's curry and soup were so much creamier and richer than any versions I've tried: I wonder if she uses some kind of special coconut milk or a higher cream:milk ratio? Some might be put off by pa nang that's almost the consistency of chicken tikka masala, but I was enchanted.
WHAT I SAW:
Lamb and beef grilled and served over salad. This was the first thing I smelled when I walked into the restaurant, and I promised myself I'd try it next time. It had the sweet, tangy, and smokey smell of fish sauce, and was grilled until it had just a little char around the edges. I had to refrain from staring as the guy who ordered the beef proceeded to pour about a quarter cup of soy sauce on the meat. What I really wanted to do was run over, confiscate his plate, and scream "For the love of Chow, show some respect!"
Spring Rolls: a woman next to me ordered the deep fried spring rolls, and got a plate of 6 largish rolls deep fried to a golden crisp. I'm not kidding: I was sitting two seats down and I could hear her crunching into these suckers. They didn't look at all greasy. Also a must try for next time.
Pad Thai: This was so fun to watch the chef make. She started by deep frying some tofu, then sauteeing it in a wok. She added the dry noodles and tossed them in some oil. Then went in a huge scoop of broth, which wilted the noodles and produced copious amounts of steam and noise. So much more theatrical and delicious looking than Emeril's contrived BAM! After wilting the noodles she put some vegetables and raw chicken in simmering water to blanch, and threw some shrimp into the deep fryer. Only towards the end did she add a bunch of different seasonings and sauces, toss in a few bean sprouts, and add the cooked items. Everything was given a last toss, put on a plate, topped with cilantro and peanuts, and given a last handful of bean sprouts.
I said she was fun to watch, didn't I?
I'd love to see others' comments on this tiny neighborhood joint, and encourage everyone to give it a try if you're ever in this neck of the woods.
Bang San Thai Cuisine (next to Chutney)
505 Jones (between Geary and O'Farrell)
11am-11pm, midnight on Friday and Saturday
They have free delivery in the area for orders over $10, between 5-10:30.
And remember, you can get Mitchell's ice cream in the laundromat on O'Farrell/Jones, next to Pakwan!