1430 E. Plaza Boulevard, 1, 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.
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."