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Lai Thai Restaurant

1430 E. Plaza Boulevard, National City




That's odd. Here it stands, right in the hub of Little Manila. On one side is that outpost of the venerable Filipino Ma Mon Luk noodle empire, Asian Noodles. On the other, across East Plaza Boulevard, stands Jollibee, the Philippines' number-one fast-food chain.

Yet since 2000, Lai Thai seems to have found acceptance as South Bay's pioneering Thai eatery. But how Thai is it? Other local "Thai" places churn out a dozen-odd clichéd dishes -- the Pad Thais, the satays, the Thai spring rolls, the hot-sour and coconut soups, and the red, green, and panang curries. Will this be just another "Thai Lite"?

Of course, I'm as guilty of feeding the cliché market as anyone. I bring a lot of baggage to poor, unsuspecting Lai Thai. Even though I've spent three years in Thailand and its neighboring countries, it's amazing how easily you can miss whole chunks of a sophisticated cuisine like Thailand's.

This happened because, while my high-salaried colleagues were hitting cool, cushioned, cross-your-leg places like Baan Thai, I was sitting on metal sidewalk stools getting used to the often more Chinese basics, like baa mee hang, a swirl of egg noodles cooked in the boiling water of the charcoal fire-fueled cart, with slices of pork, bean sprouts, chili, crumbled peanuts, and sprinkled white sugar, along with an oliang, Thai iced black sweet coffee, or cofay yen, iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk.

While others sampled seafood soufflé served in a coconut shell, I'd be putting away lad-nha (on Lai Thai's menu: fat sloppy noodles, veggies, and a meat) or larb, a Lao-inspired chicken, pork, or beef salad. In the morning, it was jok, the Thai version of the classic Chinese rice-soup breakfast, or, in summer, the other addictive breakfast, mamuang khao nio, mango and sticky rice.

In other words, there was so much going on in the street, I never found time to open myself to the many levels of Thai cooking. And yet its openness to influences, from India, to Persia, to Portugal, is what has defined Thai gastronomy. How important is food to the Thais? Thais are said to eat, on average, five meals a day. Many still follow the tradition of writing a little cooking booklet, to be given out to family when they die. He or she will put down, as beautifully as possible, the secret family recipes of their favorite dishes, their significance and reminiscences of favorite meals.

On this first visit to Lai Thai, I'm comforted by the thought that Filipinos, who must make up a large chunk of the customer base, are no wimps when it comes to spices, or amateurs when it comes to judging fellow Asians' food. And inside, this lunchtime, all but a couple of customers appear to be Filipino.

Lai Thai -- it means "Thai Art," according to the owner, Summawadee Bubpha -- sits under its hooped-arch sign, in National City's postmodern Bay Plaza Shopping Center. Walk inside and you face a garuda, a golden, winged mythical creature and national symbol of Thailand. Yet the basic decor is acoustic-tile ceiling and off-white tile floor, with green seats and plum-and-pastel-green booths. The walls and side displays are packed with interesting artifacts, including black or red hanging velvet squares with golden elephants embroidered onto them in sequins, as well as a couple of bas-relief dancing apsaras -- celestial damsels -- from Cambodian temples and an unexpected, perky-breasted African girl carved in ebony wood. Gold rings climb one of her legs. Others lengthen her neck.

The most elaborately carved frame encases a portrait of King Rama V, Chulalongkorn, the great king who welcomed foreigners and their ideas into the country maybe 150 years ago. His approach to maintaining balance in diplomacy (result: Thailand never was colonized) came to reflect the national -- and Buddhist -- ideal of balance in all aspects of life, including business and cooking.

Checking the menu, I'm trying to remember an old adage I read somewhere, that each Thai meal should include "a soup, a curry dish, and a dip with fish and vegetables."

Fine in theory, but my partner Liz and I decide it'd be crazy not to go for the two-course lunch specials. For about six dollars, you can get a sweet-and-sour soup and a dish built around chicken, pork, or vegetables. Add a dollar, and you'll have beef, roast duck, or BBQ pork. And for eight dollars you can feature shrimp, fish, or calamari. The dozen dishes they accompany range from chili basil to spicy mint leaves to panang curry to pad Thai noodles to spicy noodles. They come with a sweet-and-sour soup and salad.

Liz orders the panang with chicken. (Panang is a rich, spicy, coconut-milk-based red curry, although, as in most Thai restaurants, you choose your spiciness on a scale of one to ten.) I order the pad Thai. It's another up-from-the-street-cart rice noodle dish, using red chiles, fish sauce, eggs, cilantro, tamarind juice, and palm sugar -- among other ingredients. The use of the word "Thai" in the title tells you it's an adaptation from a Chinese dish. In fact, it's only been in Thailand since World War II. I take it with pork.

The food arrives on plates loaded with extras like wontons, spring rolls wrapped around veggies, a lettuce salad, a small bowl of delicious sweet-and-sour soup, and, with the panang, rice.

It's a meal. Plentiful, fresh-tasting, and even a bit spicy. We'd asked for "six" in terms of spiciness -- and regretted not upping it to nine. Clearly, the customers are treated with kid gloves.

My next visit was in the evening, a time when Thais tend to have more formal meals, too. Friends Robert and Cathy accompanied me. Bob's not a great spice fan. If he eats Thai, it's red curry, period. Cathy orders the honey spare ribs. Must say, I can't ever remember eating honey spare ribs in Bangkok, but they're on the menu here as a house special, so I presume they're a Thai dish. We also order a small bowl of tom kah kai, a "spicy" coconut soup with chicken and mushroom slices. The coconut milk makes this less spicy than the tom yum koong -- a hot-and-sour soup with shrimp, mushrooms, and lemongrass. Selfishly, I order a large size of that one for myself, in the charcoal-burning hot pot. I ask for a "10" on the heat register. The soup is delicious, with enough shrimp to constitute a meal in itself, but even a "10" doesn't create the spicy sweat-breaking-out-on-the-back-of-your-neck ear-ringer I crave. Visually, it's spectacular, with charcoal flames shooting up through the center spout.

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