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Restaurants & Bars 5

Update on Thai in the Lower Haight: Thep Phanom and Chilli Cha Cha

Melanie Wong | Jun 21, 200305:27 AM

A couple months ago a friend joined me for what we thought would be a quick and light Sunday dinner at Thep Phanom. We’d been to a wine tasting earlier and were much too full of Grande Marque Champagne, foie gras, and runny cheeses to think about eating much else. Yet, as we waited outside the kitchen for a table, catching a whiff and a glimpse of the many fanciful dishes that passed by soon stirred the appetite again.

Frank could see how torn I was, leafing back and forth through the menu again and again trying to pare down this order to a reasonable number of dishes. Finally, he put me at ease saying, “Remember, this is on me. Order everything that appeals to you. You can try them all and I’ll take the rest home. It’s easy.” With his largesse, our little snack soon bloomed into six dishes.

The results were more mixed than I’d anticipated. Here goes in order of service.

Larb gai – Notably the base of this dish was baby salad greens – arugula, bronze-leaf lettuce, frisee – which gave it a fusion-y feel to start. It became even less Thai-like for the dilute and watery dressing which lacked the brilliant cut of intense flavor that characterizes the cuisine. Rice powder was sparse, gummy and undertoasted.

Squid stuffed with pork – While listed in the spicy section of the menu, this dish had next to no heat. Worse still, it tasted like it had been fried ahead of time, reheated for too long in the microwave, then covered up with a sweet gooey sauce. The bubbly batter coating on the squid tubes had a petrochemical taste and tough sponginess that reminded me of styrofoam. The minced pork filling was hard and stale tasting. This dish, one of its signature preparations, was a disaster.

Duck curry with tomato and pineapple – At long last, something worth eating! Frank had raised an eyebrow that I would order something sweet and coconut-creamy, but I thought this style might be one of the restaurant’s strong suits and it proved to be. Frank said it had perfect balance, and I couldn’t disagree with him. Use of sugar was restrained and its sweetness and the rich coconut milk were held in check with a bright kick of tartness that kept things lively. A little over-basiled perhaps, but all in all, the duck curry was quite delicious.

Fried fish special – Ordered from the specials board, it’s available on Sundays and some other days. The flesh of a whole fish was cut into large bite-size cubes, dusted and deep-fried, tossed with a light tart-sweet sauce and garnishes, then reassembled on a platter. The fish was a tad overcooked and drier than it should be, but overall this was an enjoyable dish.

Grilled tiger prawns on skewers – This has a much more fanciful name on the menu (weeping ladies?) with a fancy price to match. At least the most expensive thing we tried turned out to be a winner. The prawns hit just the right doneness and had charry grilled flavor. The mild dipping sauce provided was almost extraneous.

Sticky rice with mango – Because it was early in the year yet for reliably good quality mangoes, I made a point of asking our server if the mangoes were ripe and good today. We ordered this based on her recommendation. It was a beautiful presentation with orchids, strawberries and other fresh fruits, but eye candy was all that we got. The mango was overly firm with little ripe flavor. The sugary rice was ice cold and compacted into a hard inedible lump that required application of strong pressure and leverage to be pierced by a fork. This had been assembled much ahead of time and refrigerated, instead of being prepared with freshly made warm rice. While some question whether it’s possible to mess up this dish (see link below), it certainly happened here. This is the worst version that I’ve been served.

Also, I’ll mention that the Thai ice tea was the smallest serving I’ve seen. Plus, it was overly dilute.

This dinner had a dismal 50% hit rate. The kitchen certainly has talent but also land mines. Thep Phanom may indeed be the best Thai food the City has to offer. Yet, I didn’t find magic here and I’m not in a hurry to return. Unlike Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas or Thai Nakorn in Buena Park, it hasn’t earned a place in my heart.

Limster on Thep Phanom -

Thep Phanom
400 Waller
San Francisco

At the other end of the price and amenity spectrum, Chilli (sic) Cha Cha two blocks away offers up inexpensive Thai noodle dishes, rice plates, soups, and other street-style snacks in much plainer surroundings. I’ve stopped here once, ordering #32 Chili Cha-Cha! Tom Yum noodle soup, $5.50, with fresh egg noodles. This was a virus-killing hot and sour soup with shrimp, ground pork, fish balls, and fish cakes in more ample proportions than usual and a satisfying zing of lime juice. Ordered “regular” as a first-timer not yet calibrated to the heat scale here, I needed to add a touch of hot chili paste from the condiment caddy on the table. While not as refined as the version at San Bruno’s Thai Nakorn, this was lustier, rawer around the edges, and more satisfying in some ways.

As I enjoyed my lunch, I watched the cook behind the counter grilling chicken with a great deal of care and attention. I bought an order of her BBQ chicken special, $5.95, which is a leg (drumstick and thigh) served with sticky rice and sweet chili sauce for dipping to take home with me for dinner later. The chicken was tasty from its well-seasoned garlicky marinade and the careful grilling, staying moist and succulent. A good choice for ending my long boycott of Thai BBQ chicken after too many disappointments.

I liked the young Thai women running the place. They’re gracious, offering good value, and aren’t afraid of putting full authentic flavor into their food. As a bonus, the place is open until midnight.

Rochelle McCune on Chilli Cha Cha -

Chilli Cha Cha
Thai Noodle and Food Café
494 Haight St.
San Francisco
Free delivery
Open until midnight


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