3761 Sixth Avenue, Hillcrest
906 Market Street, East Village
If you like Thai food and you haven't been to Lotus Thai lately, you may be missing a treat. The restaurant has come a long way since those "Grand Opening" banners went up six years ago. Back then, it offered some Thai barbecue and a few interesting specialties, but mainly a standard assortment of dishes executed with surprisingly bland flavors. I was puzzled that the restaurant had succeeded so well that, last year, its owners opened a second location downtown. But when I looked at the current menus, I saw impressive changes. The food is not just a "taste of Thai" now -- it's actually Thai.
The central section of both menus has San Diego's "regular" Thai restaurant dishes -- finger-foods, salads, soups, stir-fries, curries, noodles, and fried rice. Flip the menu over, though, and you discover the chefs' specialties -- 13 of them downtown, 16 at Hillcrest -- with only 3 dishes overlapping. Some of the specialties (such as "crying tiger") are fairly common at local Thai restaurants, but others are personal spinoffs of traditional dishes that you won't find cooked the same way elsewhere.
Thai cuisine is highly regionalized (except in Bangkok, where all the flavors collide). As it turns out, both of Lotus's chefs are from northwestern Thailand, and there's something in the cooking that hints at their origin -- a zestiness, a love of strong citruses and fresh herbs that speaks of the Ping River and the hills of Chiang Mai.
We first sampled the food at original Hillcrest location, where a golden Buddha welcomes you into a serene room with a fountain, flooring of old bricks, and wood wainscoting topped by mirrors. Flanking the door (should you have to wait for a table) are a pair of couches with colorful embroidered Thai fabric bolsters. Small booths line both side walls, with small tables in the center -- once you order, your table is set with small, square plates, sized for appetizers but not changed when your entrées arrive. This provides extra space for the huge serving platters -- entrée portions are more than generous, sized for sharing and doggy-bagging.
We started with a chef's specialty, Lotus mee krob. This traditional wedding dish is made of crispy deep-fried rice noodles dressed with sweet tamarind sauce, garnished as elaborately (or not) as the cook pleases. Here, the toppings are simple, consisting of a few grilled shrimp, a handful of raw bean sprouts, and delicious tiles of deep-fried tofu that have soaked up the tamarind sauce, plus minced scallions and seasonings. It isn't the best version I've tasted, but it does embody an authentic Thai sensibility -- it's that fresh crunch of the sprouts, of the noodles, even of the surface of the tofu.
A "corn latke" appetizer comes from the Malay cuisine of Thailand's southern peninsula. Golden-fried tempura-coated pancakes are filled with a sweet, glutinous mixture of corn kernels, red curry paste, and lemongrass, for a citric edge. It's both novel and filling.
Another Hillcrest specialty is tango mango, a twist on som tum (green papaya salad), a popular dish from Esarn (a.k.a. Issam), the province at Thailand's northeastern corner. A few months ago, our friend Tuy, an Esarnese living in Phuket, made us a lunch of dishes from her home region, assembling her som tum the night before so the ingredients could soak together and share flavors. It was fabulous. Lotus's tango mango substitutes green mango shreds for the papaya, garnishes them with poached shrimp (rather than Tuy's dried shrimp), red onions, and cashews in a lime vinaigrette. It's very good, but after a night in the fridge, so much better. So think doggie bag on this one, for a luscious day-after lunch.
Tuy also made larb, another specialty of Esarn and neighboring Laos -- a highly seasoned minced-meat mixture served with lettuce and fresh herbs for roll-ups. It's nearly always made with ground or minced beef, sometimes served raw like Asian beef tartare but usually stir-fried. For some reason, most San Diego Thai restaurants have switched to ground chicken breast, and so have both locations of Lotus. Although the seasoning here is full-bodied, the texture comes off like poultry sawdust. I asked the Hillcrest restaurant manager, "Mike," himself from central Thailand, the reason for the substitution. He sounded bewildered, too, finally speculating, "Some Americans don't eat beef?" Obviously, the dietary dictates of the food police have manifested themselves in mysterious ways: A nation that feeds its kids Whoppers shuns ground beef in Thai restaurants? If fat and cholesterol are such terrors, it's easy enough to sauté extra-lean ground beef (which costs about the same as chicken breast) and rinse off the fat in a sieve before seasoning it. That would be healthy larb worth eating, 'cause the chicken version is dead meat.
Okay, off the soapbox and onto the entrées: "crying tiger" -- a form of beef nobody fears -- is a smash hit at both locales. You get long, thin slices of perfectly charbroiled, fork-tender Prime-grade top sirloin with a nippy sauce to spoon over, served atop greenery. It arrived cooked precisely to our order of "rare and spicy," with undertones of woodfire and citrus. It's up there with the best steaks in town -- only this steak is sliced and spiced. (BTW, the leftovers make great Stroganoff.)
Curries from the regular menu come with your choice of protein, a list that includes "mock meat" for vegans. Our Panang curry with pork -- a creamy, coral-colored sauce based on coconut milk -- arrived at a near-perfect spice level of about 6 on a scale of 10, without our even having to specify! Lotus's chefs evidently assume that people who eat at Thai restaurants understand that some dishes should be spicy -- a refreshing change from the norm. (At most local restaurants, asking for a 7 usually gets you a 3.) Lemongrass and Kaffir lime leaves subtly underline the heat with their green-citrus perfume in this complex blend of flavors.
Crispy honey duck, a Hillcrest specialty, features roast duck with a honey glaze served over baby spinach. It's from the Royal Thai genre of dishes enjoyed at the palace in Bangkok. The current long-reigning monarch is so benevolent that for years the palace has "leaked" its special recipes; students of the Royal Thai Culinary Academy are trained on them and go on to cook them at restaurants where regular people and foreign tourists can enjoy the dishes. But in America, only restaurants that do a lot of duck business serve freshly roasted honey duck. When the menu calls it "Princess Duck" and warns of a 40-minute wait, that's a place where you should order it. Here, the duck is reheated; both the breast slices and the whole leg were very dried out.