737 Pearl Street #110, La Jolla
It’s not the windy city, the motor city, least of all the center city. It’s not Linda Vista, City Heights, or Convoy Street. It’s La Jolla, right? So the chic, newish Thai restaurant that’s been getting buzz is far from a bare-bones joint serving Thai street food or obscure spicy specialties from Issan or Chiang Rai. Nor do they serve “royal” Thai (as at Celadon and Ra), rich dishes prepared in the style of the palace, often by graduates of the palace culinary academy. (Thais are passionate about food, and that includes Their Majesties, who consider cooking an indigenous art worthy of royal cultivation and patronage.) At Chedi Thai, the food is mainly delicious, but it’s not the truest Thai — more like Thai Food as a Second Language 101.
Mark, Lynne, Mary Ann (Lynne’s fabulous mom), and I entered Chedi Thai through the back door from the parking lot, where the first thing to catch my eye was a reproduction stone sculpture in the Khmer style of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat. I wanted to ask whether the owners might possibly be Khmer, but all the front-of-the-house staffers were young, scurry-busy, and most were farang (gringos), anyway, who didn’t look like they’d know the answer. Worse yet, Thailand and Cambodia are currently engaged in a small shooting war over a patch of border territory that includes some heavy-duty religious shrines, so I feared any mention of Cambodia might be considered impolite. And Thais really hate impoliteness. (As it turned out, the food didn’t taste at all Cambodian, with that land’s lush coconut-milk sensuality.)
We were promptly shown to a too-small four-top, requested a larger one, and got it. The striking centerpiece of the dining room consists of three terra cotta miniature wats (Theravada Buddhist temples), fitting because Thailand is called “land of a thousand wats.” (If so, why can’t even fancy hotel rooms there spare more than a single 60 “wat” bulb? Doesn’t Buddha represent enlightenment?) The floors are handsome dark-brown tile, the tables shiny black; the gray chairs are thinly padded, the multicolored light fixtures both pretty and sufficient to read the menu.
The meal’s best dish arrived first: a beef tamarind consommé with pearl onions, tomato, a few dried chilies and young tamarind leaves, plus slivers of shiitakes. Beef broth is unusual in Thai cuisine. Most of the familiar soups offer light broths based on chicken broth (as in the familiar tom yum); or on water enlivened with a shot of nam pla (fermented anchovy sauce); or coconut milk (used in tom ka); or the light fish-stock base used in seafood cauldrons. But although I can’t imagine where they pasture the steers, Thailand also offers wonderful steak dishes like Crying Tiger, so a beef soup makes total sense — a cow, even its least glamorous parts, is a terrible thing to waste. The balance between the savory clarified broth of the consommé, the touch of hot pepper, the tangy tomato, sweet onion, and hint of sweet-sour tamarind was flawless. “I’d come back for this dish,” said Lynne.
The vegetarian green papaya salad (som tum) was tasty, too, in a mild farang way, garnished with cashews, tomato, and long beans, with a lime dressing. The menu awards spiciness asterisks to dishes, ranging from zero to three. This had three stars. Don’t believe it, at least not on a one-to-three scale; on a scale of one to ten, it rated a three. Som tum comes from the impoverished eastern Issan province and its neighbor, Laos, a region where they take hot pepper seriously, since chilies grow in small spaces and poor soil and furnish a huge bounty of flavor excitement and nutrients. An authentic Issanese rendition would rate eight or higher. Still, this one tasted very good, and the leftovers heated up to a six-plus after spending the night in the fridge.
From the starters list, we chose crispy corn cakes (not very crispy, just starchy and dull), plus a mixed appetizer plate of shrimp parcels, chicken-curry puffs, and vegetable dumplings, with three dipping sauces. Our server didn’t tell us which sauce was supposed to go with which bite, so we had to guess. The shrimp parcels were the standout, offering subtly complex flavors of shrimp mousse and kaffir lime curd in crisped wonton wrappers. (I enjoyed these best with the simple soy–nam pla dip, resembling a less-sweet Vietnamese nguoc cham.) The veggie dumplings are green wonton-style wrappers embracing shiitakes, corn, tofu, and spinach. They were sweet from the corn and came with a fresh cucumber relish in sweetened rice vinegar. Starchy curried-chicken puffs include potato and parsnip. I’d guess their assigned sauce is the sweet white colloid that looks like mayo, strewn with herbs that resemble rosemary but taste like dry twigs. Never mind that one.
On this Friday-night visit, the menu was expanded to include a number of weekend specials. My original plan to try crispy calamari (a Yelper favorite) changed to an order of spicy seafood salad with mussels, shrimp, calamari, rice noodles, et al, in a thin, sweet-tangy dressing. The seafood was tender, the chili-heat minimal (although, like the som tum, it increased overnight). All the flavors were understated. Overall, it seemed like tourist food with vaguely Thai tastes. My mouth craved a splash of nam pla to bring it to life. Part of the problem is that, following the nonce health fads in America, the restaurant uses only canola and olive oils. Neither works well in Thai cuisine — canola having no flavor except simple grease, olive with a flavor alien to the region. (More typical oils in Thailand are coconut or palm oil, or safflower, sunflower, or peanut oil.)
Upon arrival, Mark and I took advantage of the full bar to order the Yelpers’ fave lychee martini. Instead, our drinks tasted of olive brine — oops, they were dirty-tinis, indicating one of several communication gaps with the waitress in the noisy atmosphere. Once the food started coming, we switched to a bottle of Gewürtztraminer ($41). This Alsatian variety (dry but fruity, with a touch of sweetness and spice) is my fallback for spicy Asian cuisines, and it didn’t fall short. Mary Ann scoffed at it as “an old variety — something we used to drink before we knew about wines.” I still stand by it for Thai food (and Vouvray or Muscadet for Vietnamese). I took a sip of Lynne’s glass of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc against the som tum and found it too tart to balance the salad’s sharp flavors.