I've not yet been to Thailand. But without a passport, malaria shots, or a plane ticket, I can indulge in the splendors of its cuisine by just taking a quick hop on the 22 Freeway to the city of Garden Grove.
Those in Orange County who know and appreciate good Thai food have undoubtedly taken this pilgrimage themselves. I'm talking, of course, about the venerable Thai Nakorn.
It's been called the best Thai restaurant in Orange County for a reason. The reason? IT IS THE BEST THAI RESTAURANT IN ORANGE COUNTY! Of course, I'm biased, since it has always been one of my favorite restaurants for at least a decade. But whether you believe this post or my previous two posts on it, one thing is certain; if you haven't tried it, you must.
What awaits you there? Dishes like the following:
Fried Pomfret Fish with Chili, Garlic & Sauce ($11.95) was just that -- a whole white pomfret, a salt-water fish with a milky white and delectable flesh, was gutted, scored, and fried in hot oil until blistered brown and crisp. It was served with a dark red sauce so thick it looked like congealing blood in a bowl.
Tamarind pulp gave this saucy condiment its alarming color and consistency as well as its tart and fruity base flavor. Bold and chunky, it was chock full of sliced chili pepper pods, onion, garlic, and cilantro, folded into it as if a molten lava flow rolled through a vegetable garden.
The next dish was as addictive as it was lethal. Since it was called Crispy Catfish with Mango Salad ($7.95), when we saw the mound of shredded young mango, red onion, and chili, one of us remarked, "Where's the catfish?" in a comical "Where's the beef?" moment.
Indeed, nothing shaped like a fish was to be found anywhere in the dish. Not a head, a fin, or even a tail. Instead, dotting the salad were these golden brown crunchy crumbles that looked like Grape Nuts cereal.
This, it turns out, *was* the catfish. Little morsels of it, were strewn about the dish, functioning like fish flavored croutons. And boy was it good! Who needs to bother with bones when it's all right here in these little granules.
A dressing of lime juice, nuclear chili, sugar, and pungent fish sauce laced each wispy spoonful of the stuff, its flavors bright and intense.
This was a dish that was hard for me to stop eating, even as my brow became soaked with sweat and my burning lips begged for mercy. I yielded only after each and every last crumb was gone.
Pork salad anyone? That's what Nam Sod ($6.50) really is.
Ground pork meat was cooked and tossed with julienned ginger, roasted peanuts, scallions, whole dried chilis, and sauced with lime juice. Refreshing and breathtakingly simple, this salad played very well with rice. The bite of ginger cleared our nasal passages while the lime cleansed our palates for the next mouthful.
Nam Sod can also be had with Crispy Rice, house-made Rice Krispies, which added an extra dimension of texture. Snap, Crackle and Pop never had it so good.
Pad Thai ($6.50) at Thai Nakorn was a serviceable dish and tasted like it should. It's probably just as good as Pad Thai cooked anywhere else, but never is it this saucy and bold.
A spoonful of sugar and pepper flakes straddled the plate; a practice usually seen at authentic Thai joints like this one. Bulbous and sweet shrimp surfed on top of the cresting noodle wave, its tails still attached. Fresh and crunchy bean sprouts finished the dish -- the spaghetti and meat sauce of South East Asia.
Two soups we never pass up ordering are Tom Yum Kah Gai ($7.25) and the Tom Yum Kung ($8.25). Tom Yum Kah Gai was the milder of the two, but not by much. The level of heat, no matter how hot, was tempered by a good dousing of creamy coconut milk. And the spicy brew went on stealth mode because of it.
The first sip entranced our tongues with the tartness of lime, the sugar, and the distinctly herby touch of galangal and lemongrass which hid behind a silky screen of sultry coconut milk. On the second sip, the raucous heat of Thai chili began to hit. By the third, a numbing sensation crept in, letting us know that soon we'd feel the onslaught of a full-on capsaicin attack.
Protein, in the form of heady chunks of chicken, helped to sop up the chili pepper burn. The button mushrooms also made for a good meaty chew -- a cooling foil to the soup.
Tom Yum Kung, on the other hand, was in our faces from the very start. Not being held back by coconut milk made the broth uncensored, naked, and naughty. Diced Thai chilis floated along the top of the red soup; raw and looking for trouble.
It was a foolhardy thing we did to not specify "mild" when we ordered. Now we were going to pay the price.
Sure enough, the first spoonful sent us wincing in pain. "Oh my freakin' gawd," one of us yelped, vainly fanning his tongue with two hands. This was not a soup for wussies -- and I was a wuss.
Defeated by the mighty soup, I meekly took the shrimp and button mushrooms out of my soup and ate them with some rice. Those with lead-lined stomachs can probably stand this liquid litmus test for chili-heads. Everyone else should probably remember to ask for leniency when ordering.
To quell the fire burning in our throats we ordered Coconut Ice Cream, which did the job, though not before inducing a stifling brain freeze on our first taste. Made from coconut cream, this was one of Thai Nakorn's house creations -- a welcome respite from the dishes that came before -- both rich and icy, topped with crunchy roasted peanuts and slippery lobes of white jelly.
With our palates exhausted from the workout and our bellies full of food, we bid farewell to Thai Nakorn. I would return less than two weeks later.
Thai Nakorn Restaurant
12532 Garden Grove Blvd
Garden Grove, CA 92843