I love Thai cuisine. And I’ve eaten at more than one dozen Thai restaurants in this area (and also at a number of them in Thailand itself). But what is it about Thai food that makes it so distinctive?
One is the mix of herbs. There is cilantro, lemongrass, basil, and mint. Sometimes there is ginger, galangal, tamarind, turmeric, garlic, lime—and, best of all, several types of chilies. And many dishes have nam pla, a strong-tasting fish sauce, which gives a salty flavor to the cuisine. In fact, there are a lot of fish-based sauces and pastes, and lots of spice mixes. Thai food is a mix of foods from adjacent countries plus Persia. There is often a touch of sweetness in the sauces.
We don’t get as much regional variation in local restaurants as one might hope for. Most of our local restaurants offer the same dishes, at least by name. But the taste and preparation do vary.
I had a dish at the top-rated Thai restaurant in Las Vegas this month that was spectacular. It was a whole red sea bass served in a metal serving dish with fire underneath to keep the contents warm. The fish was swimming in a ginger broth. On the side was a Very spicy complex sauce with bits of different kinds of peppers floating in it. A separate bowl was served to spoon out the ginger broth, and with a small spoon, I titrated the amount of hot sauce for both the fish and the broth. I’ve never had such a great dish at any of the many of the Thai restaurants in this area.
I divide Thai restaurants into two categories: Vegetarian and not.
I think there is some unanimity that the best vegetarian Thai in this area is Sudha. But my personal preference is to the non-vegetarian group because I love chicken, fish, squid, and sometimes meat dishes. I’ve eaten in maybe 10 of the Thai restaurants in this area over the past 40 years or so, so this is just a sampling of the ones I know best:
One of my favorite local Thai restaurants is Thai Dishes. It has been around a long time. We had a family meal there recently. There was an excellent papaya salad, and as usual, we had the delicious “chicken on fire” appetizer, served with garlic sauce. We moved on to sharing a coconut chicken soup, with those special galangal and coconut flavors, pieces of chicken and little mushrooms. And it’s so nice that they serve the soups in a metal pot with a flame under it to keep the soup hot.
Then came one of my favorite Thai dishes, the red squid curry, with shrimp and cashew fried rice. The curry consists of squid pieces and many sliced vegetables in a rich sauce filled with flavors of coconut and spices. The fried rice comes in a pineapple, a nice touch. The two dishes together seem perfect, and so different from Indian curries, which I also love.
The Cholada Thai Beach Cuisine on the Pacific Coast Hwy in Malibu gets good ratings on the internet. I eat there sometimes because we have friends that live nearby who like to meet there. It’s very small and usually crowded. The food seems very authentic, and certainly the people serving it are.
Our family had a wonderful Thai meal this month at RIZE Thai Sushi on Lincoln. I was not optimistic since it seems half Japanese and half Thai, but it turns out to be a good mix of food cultures. The “uni shooter” was terrific! A glass of sake with two good-sized pieces of sea urchin in it, along with a small oyster and ikura caviar. Another appetizer was a Larb tuna tartare with good lime flavor. Then we had the tamarind Cod, which was very flavorful and allegedly very healthy. The star was a pad thai with lobster. Finally, we shared a massaman curry, a rich spicy beef dish served with sticky black rice, which is hard to find. At a neighboring table, we saw stuffed peppers, which looked delicious.
All said Thai food is wonderful, and we are fortunate to have so many delicious Thai restaurants all over the Westside. Hopefully, someday we will begin to see regional Thai specialties promoted.
RIZE Thai Sushi
2906 Lincoln Blvd
Santa Monica 90405
Thai Dishes Santa Monica
1910 Wilshire Blvd
Santa Monica, CA 90403
Cholada Thai Beach Cuisine
18763 Pacific Coast Hwy
Malibu, CA 90265
Phone: (310) 317-0025
Merv Hecht, like many Harvard Law School graduates, went into the wine business after law. In 1988, he began writing restaurant reviews and books. His latest book is “The Instant Wine Connoisseur, 3d edition” available on Amazon. He currently works for several companies that source and distribute food and wine products internationally. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.