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TTT: SawWadDee Thai and Ruen Pair

Melanie Wong | Nov 7, 200106:53 PM

To kick off the Thai training trials (TTT) for a possible visit to Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas later this month, I had dinner at both places recently to tune up the palate. This was my first visit to either restaurant.

SawWadDee Thai Restaurant offered the more exotic interior with plenty of gilded carvings and half the dining room devoted to floor seating with thick bolster cushions. Several specials were listed on the blackboard and I chose the halibut with red coconut milk curry offered as a daily special, plus larb ped (duck). A complimentary dish of deep-fried shrimp chips with a tamarind dipping sauce was offered quickly. However, several pieces were undercooked and too hard to bite into, which foretold the lasting impression of this meal.

The duck larb was served completely cold. Other times I’ve had larb, the meat is warm or hot to be combined with the cold greens, so this was an unpleasant surprise. The diced duck was served with the skin and a good amount of congealed fat intact and would have shown better warm. The rice powder was abundant, the way I like it, but under-toasted. This left it rather plastic-like and had the annoying quality of sticking to the teeth with each biteful. The lime-based vinaigrette was under-acidified for the richness of the duck meat and failed to add the necessary sparkle.

The red curry dish was straightforward with cooked just right chunks of moist fresh halibut, sweet pieces of Chinese eggplant, basil, slivers of bamboo shoot, and red and green bell peppers. While lacking in complexity, this was a deliciously satisfying if mildly spiced combination. One disappointment is that the complimentary rice was run of the mill long-grain and not fragrant jasmine rice. Also, the rice was not fully cooked with too many hard kernels.

This was a pleasant experience. Yet it is puzzling that three different dishes would suffer from undercooking. The friends who recommended this place said that it can be very good but wildly inconsistent. Now I understand what they mean. Total with tax and tip came to $21.

SawWadDee Thai Restaurant
12200 San Pablo Ave.

Ruen Pair is the new kid on the block, an off-shoot of the well-regarded restaurant in Southern California. I’d describe the interior as contemporary coffee shop with formica-topped tables and Thai travel shots adorning the walls. The tables were set with a collection of chili condiments and sugar for tuning up seasoning. The extensive menu featured several Issan selections from the north that the friendly staff were eager to discuss.

When I try a Thai restaurant for the first time, I’ll inevitably order either larb or green papaya salad to get a sense of the skill in the kitchen. This time I went with the House Special Raw Blue Crab Papaya Salad, $7.50, as I was intrigued by the option of fresh marinated raw blue crab. The soft and almost gooey pieces of raw crab in the shell oozed with flavor, although the stray shell shards that popped up in every mouthful of papaya were annoying. The rendition here had it all, hitting on all cylinders, as well as being incendiary in spicing. At one point my fingers were reddened and burning up just from grasping the crab legs and I had to rinse off the chili heat with ice water! I had not specified the degree and on asking was told that they’d made this “medium”. I’ll know to order “mild” in the future and maybe I can enjoy more of it.

My other appetizer was the Issan Beef Jerky, $5.95, which was sun-dried marinated beef cut into long ropey strips and accompanied by a spicy dipping sauce and shredded carrots and red cabbage. The dried meat was concentrated beef essence with exotic spicing and plus a nice flavor punch from the sauce. But after a couple bites I soon tired of the intense taste and also the major effort to chaw through the thick pieces. This one is best to share with a crowd.

My curry dish was Thai Jungle Curry, $6.95, in the pork version which was described as the chef’s special wild curry with eggplant, bamboo shoots and green beans. My first impression of this dish was an overwhelming odor of white pepper that was followed up by the fetid stench of swamp gas. Having learned that there are many malodorous things in the Asian food universe that turn out to be delicious to eat, I forced myself to give it a taste. This time though, it was even more putrid on the palate. Such a shame, the baby eggplants were so cute, although the slices of pork were overcooked and dry. I asked the server what the noisome odor might be, and she replied, “galangal and black pepper”. I’ve never had to do this before, but I had the offending dish taken away as well as my dinner plate and utensils that had touched it.

Returning to the menu, I ordered Rad-Na, $5.95, pan-fried wide rice noodles with pork simmered in gravy. The description promised Chinese broccoli but only a few of the pieces were and most were regular ol’ broccoli florets. Again, the dish had an overwhelming aroma of white pepper, in fact, there was a small pile (yes, a heap) of ground white pepper in the center of the dish. The serving was too skimpy with noodles and they were clumped together rather than separated. Also the pork was overly lean and the gravy wasn’t particularly tasty ending the meal on a down note.

Despite these mis-steps, I would return as the menu seems to hold so much promise. Total with tax and tip was $36, including a fresh coconut juice drink served in the shell. Also on the tab was the dish I’d sent back which is to be expected, I guess.

Ruen Pair
1045 San Pablo Ave.

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