For a Vietnamese entrée, we chose “360 beef” (a.k.a. shaking beef), served with rice. The beef (probably tri-tip) was suitably tender and decently seasoned — but it lacked the smoky, caramel depths and greater tenderness of the same dish made with sirloin at Del Mar’s Le Bambou or, a block away from Chow, made with filet mignon at Saigon on Fifth. It came with a ramekin of salt and black pepper mixed together, an authentic garnish, but the pepper seemed to be bottled fine-ground, not coarse fresh-ground, as it should be.
By now, I’m sure you’re picking up a pattern. With farang (non-Thai) cuisines, Chow’s renditions are edible and pleasant but neither authentic nor optimal. For any dish you might try here, a better version can be found at other restaurants dedicated to that ethnic cuisine. But since Chow’s owner runs two of the top Thai restaurants in San Diego, how does the kitchen do on his native cuisine?
Bad news. Chow is not Celadon or Rama. It’s also not Lotus Thai, or any other reasonably good Thai restaurant in the area. It proves to be one of the least authentic, most deeply compromised Thai kitchens around.
The first problem is an evident indifference to quality. Take the satays. The skewered beef was not only cardboard tough but uninteresting. The chicken was overcooked and underseasoned. The dipping sauce was cloyingly sweet. A food-vendor with a sidewalk brazier on any alley or temple courtyard in Bangkok would be out of business in three days with skewers like these. No Thai would try them twice, and there aren’t enough dumb farangs in the whole country to support them.
Second problem: In its version of an often spicy cuisine, Chow — attempting to please all tastes — defaults to just about no heat at all. (This is silly. Patrons who dislike spicy food have three other nations’ milder dishes to choose from.) Instead of cooked-in chilies, you receive a condiment tray holding dried red peppers, pickled red peppers, pickled green serranos, and Sriracha sauce. Help yourself. The problem is, throwing hot chilies onto food that’s already cooked creates a harsher effect than introducing the spice from the start, so that it has a chance to mellow and blend with its fellow ingredients. Here’s an example: With no built-in chile, Chow’s som tum (green papaya salad) is tart and vaguely pleasant but shallow tasting. None of the table-condiments mirrors the typical Thai preparation, which begins with pounding garlic and fresh hot chilies in a mortar to a rough paste. You can’t fix it at the table with sprinklings of condiments — you don’t have the raw materials or the tools. In contrast, when my Isaan-born friend Tuy in Nan Yang (on Phuket) makes som tum, she assembles it (except for the last-minute chopped nuts) the night before she serves it, so that all the flavors can make friends (including a fair amount of hot pepper — she is from the spiciest culinary province of Thailand).
Finally, Chow substitutes sweetness for fire. Take the nightmarish pad thai. To borrow from Sweeney Todd, it’s got to be “the worst pad thai in London” — or anywhere else. Rename it “Dentist’s Yacht” — it’s got enough sugar to rot your molars in three bites. In Chiang Mai, the noodles, barely sweetened by a light sauce, are an excuse on which to hang a riot of pungent dried shrimp, fresh shrimp, dried radish, and fresh vegetables. At Chow, the heavy, glutinous sauce tastes as if it wandered off from a Thai wedding dish called mee krob (made with deep-fried “exploded” rice noodles and about 40 other ingredients, which is why you don’t see it often in restaurants). At weddings, maybe all the sugar is appropriate.
Another evening’s “drunken noodles” (large, soft egg noodles with seafood in coconut-based curry sauce) were not really drunk — they were on a sugar high. From white sugar, I’m sure — Thai palm sugar doesn’t taste as sweet, and it doesn’t come granulated but arrives in solid blocks of various shapes. (The ones in my cupboard look like suntanned seashells.) You have to laboriously grate off the amount you need — a process that automatically breeds restraint. Cooks in Thailand tend to use palm sugar as a seasoning, one flavor among many. In America, Domino makes sugar dominant.
We did find one truly pleasing Thai dish: Tom Yum, lemongrass noodle soup. Far less fiery than usual, it revealed an unexpected soothing side to its personality. The tender shrimp in the broth were perfectly cooked. By now, however, Chow may be serving a different, beef-broth version with short rib meat. (I’d gladly try that, too.)
Our final Thai entrée was green curry. Since the new menu draft seems to offer it only with chicken, rather than seafood, that’s how we had it — encountering another flurry of dried-out breast meat swamped in a sauce so lackluster, you could do at least as well at home with a quarter-cup of bottled Thai Kitchen green curry paste and a can of Chao Kuo coconut milk.
In fact, you’d probably do it better, since you’d probably toss in some vegetables (how about Japanese eggplant?), and you’d take better care of whatever protein you were using. One of my tablemates at the second dinner has lived her life in a small town in Wisconsin, without much experience with Southeast Asian cuisine. “They seem to use an awful lot of meat and starch and not a lot of fresh vegetables,” she commented, picking at the drunken noodles. The rest of us burst into a chorus about how atypical Chow’s food is compared to more authentic restaurants (especially in its Vietnamese dishes), much less compared to the veggie-rich cooking of the four Asian nations it covers.
Over an excellent dessert of sticky rice with mango, posse-regular Sam looked thoughtful. “Does it seem to you that all of this food has been heavily adapted for gringos?” “The Thai word for ‘gringos’ is farang, but yes,” I said. “Hard to believe the same owner owns Celadon and Rama,” said Mary Jo. “Lower price point here,” said Sam, “lower ambitions.”