Bahn Thai went bigger with its expansion into Hillcrest.
It’s kind of surprising that I haven’t written before about Bahn Thai. I’ve been eating at the University Heights restaurant since it opened, going on ten years ago, and I’ve returned often. The most likely reason I haven’t is that I’ve always gone there for take-out. The actual storefront is so tiny, it needs the sidewalk to get up to five tables.
4646 Park Boulevard, San Diego
3766 Fifth Ave, San Diego
Still, when I heard the Thai eatery had opened a second location in Hillcrest, five minutes away, I didn’t get it. Who would order from Bahn Thai on Fifth Avenue that wouldn’t just as easily pick it up on Park? I compared menus at the two locations and could discern no difference. I went on ordering take-out from the original. Drunken noodles, usually. Medium spice at the hottest, because this place appears to get a kick out of adding more heat than you expect it to.
Finally, almost a year to the day after the Hillcrest location opened, I switched it up and ordered from the newer place. And I realize it made all kinds of sense.
Pad see ew with beef, from Bahn Thai
First, it’s a lot larger than the University Heights location. The sort of size increase the owner of a very small restaurant might enjoy moving into. How novel to be able to serve a lot of customers at once, right? Except, of course, I found the larger venue sitting empty, the extra square footage wasted during the pandemic.
But not really wasted. That larger Bahn Thai is doing brisk business, like a well-oiled take-out machine. Unlike the University Heights hole in the wall, this joint has a handful of parking spots out front, dedicated short term for pick-up orders only. I could just pull up, park, and run inside.
A larger Thai restaurant, sitting empty but moving plenty of take out
Though the larger space had been cleared of its tables and chairs, a number of employees could be seen hustling behind the counter. I was there to pick up pad see ew, and a special of the month: green curry with avocado — $12, with pork, and an interesting diversion from my usual yellow curry order. In the fewer than five minutes I was there, I watched about fifteen to-go orders come out of the kitchen, bagged and ready to go. Some were pick-up orders like mine, many would be picked up by delivery drivers.
Yellow curry with chicken (featuring a very hot 'medium' spice)
I’ve heard from knowledgeable sources that, despite the struggles the restaurant industry as a whole has faced since the pandemic began, there are some, most in the fast casual range, that do take-out so well they have actually been thriving during the shutdown. Here in Hillcrest, the phenomenon may be witnessed in Thai food alone. The neighborhood’s atmosphere-oriented sit-down restaurant, Amarin Thai, recently closed its doors after two decades due to the pandemic. The experience it offered didn’t translate to our latter-day mask-in, mask-out mode of dining. And yet, the neighborhood’s new fast casual Thai alternative is humming along at an encouraging clip. It probably doesn't hurt that Reader readers recently voted Bahn Thai the city's Best Thai of 2020.
The small interior of the original Bahn Thai location
It success likely presages a trend we can expect to see in restaurants over the next year or more – businesses with smaller footprints that can move consistently good food around fast. Kind of like the original Bahn Thai, come to think of it.