Can something as spicy as Thai cuisine be considered comfort food? For my generation, perhaps. Thai food, as it's interpreted in America, is the culinary equivalent of an action film: You know when you sit down exactly what you're going to get. The taste buds are going to be pleasantly assaulted, first with a shot of the sweet, then with sour and spicy, all orchestrated with lush waves of lemongrass, galangal, and spices.
From El Sobrante to Union City, there isn't a Thai-free neighborhood in the East Bay these days. Small restaurants like SaWaDee in Richmond and Old Weang Ping Village in Oakland's Millmont neighborhood have quietly attracted local followings for their better-than-average Thai food.
The seafood tom yum soup at SaWaDee, for example, which comes to the table simmering in a bundt-shaped hot pot. Full of plump shrimp and vegetables, the lime-tart broth, warmed with chiles and fragrant with galangal and kaffir lime, was the epitome of the Thai genius for balancing sweet, sour, spicy, and salty.
Margaret Kanchong, who opened SaWaDee seven and a half years ago, has created a comfortable space with half Western tables and half low Thai-style tables surrounded by pillows, which kids will particularly love. Lacy curtains keep the noise and grit of San Pablo away, and the humble room is filled with intricate carvings, pictures of Thailand, and waiters dressed in brightly colored, sarong-like dresses.
On both visits, our waitress, who shuffled languidly around the room and squeezed out a dour smile when she'd pass our table, looked like the emotional labor of her job was weighing her down. But she brought our courses to the table hot, fresh, and in the right order, and didn't just disappear once it had all arrived.
SaWaDee's menu runs for pages and pages, hitting just about every standard menu, plus grilled meats, salads, curries, and stir-fried dishes. And then you get to the specials. The clear, fresh flavors of the tom yum didn't always carry through to the rest of SaWaDee's food. The fish cakes (served with a syrupy cucumber relish), spring rolls, and deep-fried sweet potatoes in a coconut batter tasted pleasant, but mired in oil. Equally unexceptional was a yellow curry with lamb: Sweet coconut milk drowned out the spices, and the lamb clearly had been braised separately, so it didn't spend much time absorbing the sauce.
However, a grilled half chicken had been rubbed in a turmeric-ginger paste that had melted into the meat, caramelizing on the grill. And the prawns, scallops, mussels, and squid on SaWaDee's mixed-seafood special came out of the wok fresh and sweet, tossed with crisp green asparagus in a garlic-chile oil that animated their flavors, not overshadowed them.
That principle of balance -- which cookbook author David Thompson calls "paramount" with Thai cuisine -- was highlighted again in the sticky rice with mango. Kanchong balanced out the dessert with a little salt, which I find addictive: The salt opens up the flavors of the coconut milk-saturated sticky rice and hones the tangy edge of the fruit.
Old Weang Ping Village looks like it has been on MacArthur Boulevard for a million years -- because it has: Pat Sawanwatana and his wife, Jook, have owned the restaurant for 21 years. Just another house in a row of houses now, the well-worn restaurant barely stands out from the strip. Except for the thatched roof, of course.
Enter the front door and go back in time -- first through the late-1960s entryway cluttered with spider plants, wooden birds, and water fountains, then into the dining room, which looks like a cross between a beachside hut and a 1950s diner. Mocha leatherette booths ring a room decorated in a homey hodgepodge of painted carvings, stenciled Buddhas, and mock-Regency mirrors. It's the perfect space for a boozy birthday party, provided you don't have more than thirty friends.
The owners have collapsed what could have been a humongous menu into a page-long series of equations. Appetizers and soups get individual mentions, but instead of full entrees, the menu just provides a list of thirteen sauces, from panang curry to lemon-butter-garlic. You can pick beef, pork, chicken, or nine types of seafood to go with any of them. Vegetarians also take the U-pick approach to their food, combining a sauce with their choice of three vegetables.
Most of Old Weang Ping Village's menu will be familiar to your five-year-old, but it's spiked with little eccentricities. Like gumbo.
"What do you mean by gumbo?" I asked the waiter.
"It's a soup," he replied. "From Louisiana."
"Has the chef lived in New Orleans?"
"No, but she likes the recipe."
Gumbo and lemon-butter sauce aside, Old Weang Ping's sign advertises "Thai Country Cooking," and that's what its homey food tastes like. The Sawanwatanas don't spend their days dyeing turnip roses or carving bouquets of carrot flowers for the plate, and they use readily available American vegetables -- most of the dishes I tried contained nothing more exotic than celery, red onions, tomatoes, and broccoli. But I tasted an appealing forthrightness in their rustic dishes that appealed to me more than sugar- and coconut-drowned Thai food I've found so many other places.
You could actually tell that Jook's nubbly, silver-dollar-sized fish cakes were made of fish, shot through with lemongrass and scallions. Pat says that 15 herbs go into the "barbarian soup" packed with chicken and vegetables; the fiery, aromatic broth lingered on the palate for quite some time. I didn't see any exotic herbs in the "exotic herb salad," but the perfectly banal lettuce, scallions, celery, and tomatoes hid a wallop of a dressing -- heavy on the lime, garlic, and toasted coconut -- offset by the buttery earthiness of roasted cashews and the citrusy ping of slivers of lemongrass.
The pork in our pork with Weang Ping chili oil sauce was as tough as my grandmother's pork chops, but something about that sauce, meaty and reddened with dried chiles, kept me picking over the plate. Similarly, the pad thai was wokked up in an oily tamarind dressing. The oil evened out the balance between tart tamarind and caramelly palm sugar, though; for once I didn't feel like I was eating candied noodles. Weang Ping's red-curry roasted duck was the one dish in which the meat was better than the sauce; the aromas of spices and herbs shimmered beneath the surface, but coconut milk muddied their flavors.
The specials chalkboard lured us away from the gumbo. Where else have you seen cassia-leaf curry? The Sawanwatanas brought this bitter green back from their last visit to Thailand. We opted instead for a beautiful roast-coconut curry with prawns, which was sautéed in a ruddy paste of aromatics and nutty toasted coconut. It seemed simple, but there was no teasing out any of the disparate elements in the sauce; they came together like an interlocking puzzle. Twenty years after my first bite of Thai food, the most familiar of "exotic" cuisines still retains some of its mystery.
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