The other spectacular is the hiss and crackle of the honey spare ribs when they arrive on an oval iron plate. The ribs sound and smell great, even if they're not really Thai. I suspect this is another example of Thais adopting dishes, marinating them in tamarind, lemongrass, garlic, and ginger, until, presto -- it's Thai.
The red curry, classically made with coconut milk, red curry paste, bamboo shoots, basil, red chili peppers, and ginger or galangal, comes in a charming blue-and-white six-inch Chinese bowl decorated with dragonflies and dandelions. Sweet and sour are balanced, and the chewy bamboo shoots feel like sticks of jicama.
Coconut milk also rules the pièce de résistance, the Lai Thai fish, a tilapia deep-fried and crispy golden beneath a field of lemongrass and marinated cabbage, all sitting over a swamp of pink panang sauce. You may go for the more tart, gutsy tilapia with chili and basil sauce -- it's like the difference between Tom Kah soup and Tom Yum -- but the reddy richness of the panang and the cleanness of the white fish flesh make for a special marriage. It looks truly seductive on a brown-glazed, fish-shaped plate.
They also have steamed mussels, with lemongrass (of course), sweet basil, and a chili garlic sauce. If you have time, and don't have to drive, these mussels go perfectly with a few rounds of Singha ("Lion") beer, Thailand's German-style national draft. Or (if only one could find it) that sharp, sweet, rumlike Mekong rice whiskey that gives farangs ("foreigners") some of their loudest moments and heaviest hangovers. And for the ultimate peanut rush, yes, they have satay sticks, but pra ram, a simple sautéed spinach dish with peanut sauce and toasted onion, is hard to beat. The two dishes I am coming back for are the Tom Yum Talae, lemongrass hot-and-sour soup filled with mixed seafood, and the larb, the must-be-hot northeastern ground-meat salad dish from Issan (a.k.a. Esarn), the district sharing a border and lots of recipes with Laos.
I eschew my usual dessert of mango and sticky rice, partly because this hemisphere's Mexican mangoes never quite match the sweetness of Thailand's. Our slight tartness takes away that orgasmic sweetness that swoons against the nutty sticky rice. Instead, we order a coconut ice cream "with golden fried banana," as the menu describes it. And yes, it's golden, crunchy, and flavored by the syrup of a maraschino cherry.
My only complaint here is the lack of heat in some of the dishes. But heat is no defining measure of Thai cooking. And "Nikki" Bubpha has to accommodate the world she serves. There is an authenticity to her food and an attractiveness to each dish. In a land of polystyrene throwaways, this place honors the Thai tradition of visual and gustatory beauty. You might find more lavish surroundings elsewhere in San Diego, but if you balance the reasonable bill, good ingredients, and style, this is hard to beat. Just remember to ask for "high" on the heat scale.
ABOUT THE OWNER
Summawadee ("takes care of powerful Buddhas") Bubpha has a master's degree in finance, studied in Washington D.C., and worked for the Thai government in Bangkok but decided in 2000 that she wanted to "promote my country" here in the U.S. "I started in L.A., but it was too big. Then I came down to San Diego and fell in love with it."
She took over Lai Thai, which as of six years ago had been going for a year. "I had never run a restaurant before. And being the first Thai restaurant in the south of the county was tough. I'd work 14 hours. And I would have maybe ten customers in one day. But I'd take time to talk to them and cook exactly what they wanted, and soon they started bringing their families. I kept the name because I thought that was perfect. I want to make art from Thai food."
She learned to cook from her mom. "She is a very good cook. When I was young in Thailand, she taught me a lot, and I also studied cooking in Bangkok. Most of my food is a combination [of regional styles]. Isaan-northeast cooking is very spicy, with sticky rice and the larb salad. I try to combine south, north, and Bangkok-style."
And what is Bangkok-style? According to the prestigious Thai Cooking School, Thai foods fall into three categories: popular curbside "fast foods" like pad Thai; country foods that use cheap meat, avoid expensive ingredients like coconut milk, and include searingly hot spices to cover the quality deficit; and "city Thai" style, which incorporates every possible influence, from French sauces to Japanese-style presentation, always trying for harmonious balance between yin and yang.
Balance is what Summawadee Bubpha says she seeks, too, between the five tastes of the Thai palate: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and spicy. "I take a lot of time making sure I have balance in, say, a curry. It should be a little salty and a little sweet. And at the end of a meal you should feel light, healthy.
"But here, I can't cook food as if only Thai people were going to eat it. Sometimes you have to adjust, like make it less spicy, to make it easier for Americans to enjoy a meal."
Actually, she says that hardly any customers are Thai. Mostly, they're Filipino or American. And the most requested dishes among Americans are Thai fried rice and BBQ chicken, predictable crossover dishes for the wary customer. "Or anything with peanut sauce," Summawadee adds.
The one thing she knows many Americans find hard to accept: lukewarm meals. "To Thai people, it doesn't matter," she says. "To Americans it is all-important."