“Oh. My. God. This is the BEST!” proclaimed Tom.
This was before Tom and his girlfriend backpacked through the world over the summer of 2004. Thailand was one of their destinations. So, I wanted to introduce him to Thai cuisine before he embarked on the journey. There was a Thai restaurant not terribly far from where I worked at the time, so me and the boys headed there. Because of the location of the place, in the middle of a very white and rich Seal Beach, I originally had a little reservation, but what the hey…let’s give that place a shot.
I regret now for taking them to that place without actually trying it first.
“Dude. This is NOT Thai food,” I told him. “Everything is sweet. This place is terrible. Don’t get use to the flavor of this stuff because it’s not what you’ll have in Thailand. Next week, I’m taking you to another joint.”
“Is it not good, or is it not authentic?” asked Robert, who was also having Thai food for the first time.
“It is not authentic. AND it sucks.”
“I think this is one of the best foods I’ve ever tasted in my life,” Robert, went on. “Just because it’s not authentic, it doesn’t mean it’s bad.”
“Well, it doesn’t taste good to me because this is NOT how I had it. So, yes, Robert. It’s bad because it’s not authentic,” I shot back.
“It tastes good to me. I LOVE it.”
“Good for you. It still doesn’t make this a good Thai food place.”
That whole philosophical issue of “good” versus “authentic” raged on for a few more minutes, ending with me promising to take them to a REAL Thai food place next time.
I did take the boys out to a more authentic place just a few blocks from the office, the opposite direction of that other place. I’ll give you one guess what Robert said.
“I like the other place better.”
Nonetheless, Tom and the other coworker Terry followed my path to authentic Thai food, leaving in the dust that “Farang’ed” up version. Long after Tom and I left the company, the guys still go to that other joint except for Terry, who I have turned into a real fan of Thai food. He would actually go to hole in the wall up the street alone while the gang trekked down to the sweetened, overly peanut sauced joint.
And here’s my point.
Inspired by a recent post by Pondering of the Midwestern USA, I am here to present a little guide on what to look for in a Thai restaurant that would get you the most authentic tastes of Thailand while in the U.S. (and some other countries, I would imagine).
I thank Buddha everyday that my fate brought me over to Southern California where Thai food outside of the Motherland maintains its integrity unlike our counterparts in all the other spots out there. But like I mentioned that OTHER Thai restaurant down from the old work place, even in Southern California, we can still run into “westernized” Thai food.
Here is how I personally decide where to go in to eat. No science involved.
1. The Crowd
This indicator never fails.
Take a look inside and see the demographic composition of the restaurant. If it looks like the place is packed with Thai people, get on inside and have some food. If you see plenty of blond and other non-Asian heads, say thank you and turn right around.
If the natives ain’t eatin’ here, you know something’s not right about the place.
This rule also applies to gauging any other ethnic restaurants.
2. The Name of the Place
If you are looking up a restaurant in a phone book, watch out for some keywords to avoid.
“Thai Bistro” or “Thai Café” does not instill confidence as an authentic place to eat. Neither does Thai hyphen anything, i.e. Thai-Chinese, Thai-Cambodian, Thai-Mexican, Thai Food and Donuts, etc. Although I do like fusion food, but when I want real Thai food, any place with fusion in the description doesn’t get my vote.
This point works most of the time, but not always. Some restaurants would have an English name for the mass but Thai people would know it by another name. For example, the famous “Palms Thai” in Hollywood is undeniably authentic Thai, but the twist here is that the restaurant is known to LA Thais by its original name of Suan Taan, sugar palm orchard.
And others have a translated version of their Thai names to English so the names don’t particularly sound like a restaurant. For example, our once favorite Thai food joint is called “Treasure Pot”. Surely a translation of some auspicious Thai name. The restaurant up the street from the old office, where Terry goes to nowadays, is called “Dear Heart”. Possibly Kaew Jai–-glass heart—-the core of my heart, the apple of my eyes sort of thing.
3. The Look of the Place
First, the place that is overly stocked with Thai crafts and such. Not a good sign. They obviously aim for non-Thai customers. I don’t see anything overly Thai inside our now favorite restaurant “Kapow” (again, bastardized version of Thai name, Kraprow) or at “Palms Thai”.
Be especially weary if the place boasts to have classical Thai dancing show. See Rule #1. Would Thai people need to see a classical Thai dance while dining?
Secondly, if you walk into a “Thai restaurant” in t-shirts and jeans and you feel like you’re underdressed for the occasion, or not trendy enough for the place, that is not a good sign for authentic Thai food. The sleek and white-linen type places, to me, feel like the restaurant is keeping up appearance to attract farangs who seek fine dining experience.
Thai food, by all means, is not “fine dining”. Authentic Thai food is not made out of the expensive truffle mushrooms or foie gras.
Authentic Thai food is not served in expensive china and on white linens. Authentic Thai food is home cooked foods, foods that a family share and enjoy together. It wasn’t supposed to be an extravagant event. Traditionally, Thai people eat with their hands on the floor in a circle. That tradition moves up from the floor to the table with forks and spoons thrown in. But still, it’s a cuisine to be shared in a friendly manner. Not an event one has to dress up for.
I prefer a joint that looks a little shabby. A hole in the wall kind of place seems to produce more authentic food than most. Again, another exception would be “Palms Thai” which has recently moved from the old hole in the wall to a larger fancier location. Still, the ambiance is not one of the gourmet dining. Actually there are only a few smaller tables and the rest are long, canteen style table where you share with someone else.
4. Health Ratings
In California, there is a rating system for food service establishments based on cleanliness of the place according to the Department of Health Services’ Hygiene 100-point Grading Systems. “A” being clean and pass the health codes with flying color, and C hovering over 60 points. Once you get the grade, you have to display it in front of your restaurant. If you go below 60 twice, they close you down until the problems are fixed and you get better grade.
The running joke in the region is that to get the most authentic ethnic foods, you’ll have to look for B or less. Yep. Funny how my friends of other nationalities agree! The shadier the place, the better the food!
Take another LA establishment, P’ Yai Restaurant. P’ Yai is in an aged strip mall, tugged away behind a Pier 1 Imports, just off the 101 Freeway. The exterior looks like it suffers a mild case of urban decay. The inside feels like a mom and pop Thai restaurant back home: basic chairs and tables, faded Thai posters on the wall. As the legend goes, since the rating systems came about, P’ Yai has been closed down and reopened many times, hovering between B and C.
This restuarant has been around forever and is the must-eat-here place for Thai community. Many Thais deem as having THE best Thai food in town, or at the least the best “Boat Noodles”–Kuay Teaw Ruah.
5. The Menu
When trying out a new Thai restaurant, their proof of authenticity lies in this one dish: Pad Kraprow Gai Sabb – Thai basil chicken made with ground chicken. Ground chicken signifies authenticity here, not the flavor of the dish.
So far, the restaurants that told me they don’t do ground chicken Kraprow are not as good. The flavor of strips of chicken stir-fried with garlic and Thai basil may be right, but it’s just not the same. And then the rest of the dishes usually fall short of 100% authentic Thai.
The menus tell a lot about the food they serve. Even the most authentic food I have so far outside of Thai Town in Hollywood, you will still see Chop Sui and Kung Pow on there to please Americans who don’t know better. I can’t fault the place for that.
You should be concern when certain popular key Thai dishes are not represented there. Oh I don’t know, like the Thai place blocks away from my house in Los Alamitos doesn’t have Panang on the menu. Needless to say we haven’t set foot in the place yet.
And of course, a menu that is extensive and including all sorts of things you eat in Thailand–or for you, non Thais, things you’ve never even heard of before when you talk about Thai cuisine–is always a good sign.
The place setting of just a fork, or maybe a fork and a knife, is clearly not a place to present authentic Thai food. If the joint is crawling with the natives, or if they intend to present an authentic dining experience, there should be a spoon out.
Sure, my observations here are biased. And by all means they are not all accurate. Well except for Point #1 and #4. But I have made many mistakes before.
The place I took Tom and the boys the first time has almost all of the warning sign.
Not a single Thai patron in sight. Check. The place is decked out with touristy Thai things. Check. They don’t do Padd Kraprow Gai Sabb. Check. The place setting includes a fork. Check. The Thai waitress was surprised to have a Thai customer. Although not a criteria here, but …Check.
My Gaeng Keaw Wahn Gai (chicken green curry)? Might as well toss it in the freezer and serve it up as coconut ice cream with chicken. It was rich with coconut milk and sweeter than any Gaeng Keaw Wahn I’ve eaten. The funny thing is that I asked the waitress for “Nam Pla Prik”, fish sauce with chili, she looked a bit bewildered. When she returned with a little bowl of it, I noticed the cook poked her head out from the kitchen hallway to see that Thai girl ordering the nam pla prik.
Learn from my lessons, young Padawans. And good luck with your journey to find authentic Thai food out west. May the spoon be with you.