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Thai Basil

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  • elise h Apr 13, 2001 10:42 PM

What is the litmus test for Thai restaurants? To me, it has always been Pad Thai. Simple as this dish seems, it is a feat to create the perfect combination of flavor and texture. Thai Basil passed the litmus test! This busy little restaurant in Sunnyvale serves fresh, fast dishes at extremely reasonable prices. The pad thai was $4.95 at lunch. Here are the details:
Location #1: 101 S. Murphy Ave., Sunnyvale, CA 408 773 1098; Location #2: 210 Town & Country Village, Sunnyvale, CA 408 774 9090.

Link: http://www.thaibasil.com

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  1. You'll probably not be surprised that I don't think there IS a litmus test. At least not any single one.

    Pad thai is indeed hard to find good, but noodles are a realm unto themselves. Great noodles don't guarantee great other stuff, nor vice versa (though in Thai places, the latter is more likely than the former).

    Here are some things to look for:

    1. great spicy heat without request (or, at least, available upon simple request without needing to resort to begging, pleading, and teeth gnashing)

    2. presence of dishes on the menu you've never heard of (otherwise they're likely pandering with gringo greatest hits)

    3. broccoli with crispy pork makes a good second litmus test. Pork must be incredibly crispy and flavorful, and broccoli must have charry wok flavor

    4. I use kway tiow as my baseline noodle dish, but that's just a personal thing

    5. always always plumb the dessert menu. Failing to do so may be the single biggest gringo mistake in Thai places (other than demanding chopsticks). There is usually significant dessert treasure, much of it invariably off-menu ("off-menu", of course, being music to a chowhound's ears).

    6. I speak from an East Coast perspective. I'm still stinging from my nasty uni-coastal blunder re: Muslim Chinese restaurants. If these rules of thumb are foiled by the continental divide or the Coriolis effect or something, I'm sure some Left Coast hound will pipe up forthwith.

    ciao

    16 Replies
    1. re: Jim Leff

      Actually, restaurants that serve great pad Thai often serve almost nothing else that is remotely edible. A Western equivalent that comes to mind is a coffeeshop that has great BLTs: This says next to nothing about the quality of the same restaurant's hamburger, and chances of decent fancier food suddenly become nil.

      And kway tiow may not work as a baseline noodle dish: It's more generically Southeast Asian than it is Thai, and its very existence on a menu probably indicates Chinese ownership.

      Instead, look for:

      1. Great papaya salad. This is an automatic order for a lot of Thai people, and a place that neglects this dish can hardly be trusted to make anything else. Look for freshness of papaya; brightness of dressing; clear, clean chile heat; and full-flavored dried shrimp. Bonus points for tiny salt-cured crabs.

      2. Presence of ``odd foods.'' If a restaurateur takes the trouble to find venison, boar, fresh frog, green peppercorns still on the branch, tiny eggplants, tiny tuna, you can be sure that he at least has an idea of what he should be serving. But more important is

      3. A variety of bar snacks: fried quail, beef jerky, sour sausage with fried peanuts, roast chicken, etc. None of these foods can be masked with bottled sauce bases (which are ubiquitous in curries); freshness is paramount; and Thai customers demand them.

      4. At least a few regional dishes. Which, since most emigration to the U.S. is from Bangkok, may matter less than it does in other cuisines, but it's always nice to see.

      5. Mango with sticky rice. This dessert is fiendishly time-consuming in its best form, and the mango needs to be both fragrant and dead ripe. If the waiter tries to push this on you at hte beginning of a meal, it is usually a good sign.

      1. re: Pepper

        A big "doh...of course!" on the papaya salad.

        You can get wonderful mango (and banana) sticky rice at Sripraphai, in Queens. Also darned good kway tiow, despite non-chinese ownership (in fact, none of the good kway tiow I've eaten on the east coast has come from Chinese-owned places). In any case, I'm not sure what "generically Southeast Asian" means, since there's sooo much overlap between these cuisines. If we're looking for dishes that are uniquely Thai (not Laotian, not Cambodian, etc), that's a whole other thread, and one that'd be mostly of academic interest.

        Speaking of pan-SE Asian dishes....larb should go on the litmus list. Should be exquisitely fresh-tasting and searingly hot...and taste, somewhat paradoxically, like the epitome of rich meatiness as well as the essence of fragrant/acidic limey herbyness (cut me slack on my syntax...it's late). Oh, and while you may find it made with meats other than pork, I tend to dismiss them as I do non-chocolate egg cream flavors.

        ciao

        1. re: Jim Leff

          Jim, thanks for calling attention to this thread on the General Topics board.

          I agree with the points about som tom and larb, but I have larb gai (chicken) and don't see what's wrong with eating it rather than something with ground pork. Larb gai is a standard offering in most Thai restaurants I've been to, and a good Manhattan Thai restaurant like Thai Lemon Leaf on 2nd Av. between 11th and 12th Sts. in my neck of the woods does a great job with that.

          Basically, though, if a Thai restaurant makes a delicious, spicy tom yom gung with absolutely fresh shrimps - no fishy taste - and terrific tod mun pla - again with absolutely no fishy taste, perfectly cooked - it's likely to be an all-round delicious restaurant, in my experience. And I don't care whether the tod mun pla is a little plump or totally flat; I care how it's brown on the outside, perfectly cooked, and delicious, with a tasty sauce accompanying it.

          Som tom is one of my favorite dishes, and if a Thai restaurant makes it poorly, I am very unlikely to return. (I could tell you a story, but I'll spare you, and it's off-topic on this board, anyway.)

          I have to add that I don't usually see more "unusual" ingredients than frog's legs on Thai menus in Manhattan. Then again, I don't know of any great Thai restaurants in Manhattan. You SF people are really lucky! When I visit my brother in the Mission, we sometimes walk over to the place by the Safeway on Market in the Castro. Just a neighborhood place, but it blew away all the Manhattan Thai places I knew the last time I ate there. Not to mention the last time I was in Seattle...

          1. re: Michael L.

            From the perspective of Manhattan Thai restaurants, am I the only one who finds most of our eateries here serving overly SWEET dishes? It is so tough to find preparations that are not cloying and sugary. There seems to be so little attention paid to a proper balance of sweet and savory. (Though the larb dishes usually manage to avoid this and are my favorites!) I always wonder if 'real' Thai food is as sweet as what I'm usually served -- or do chefs believe that Americans 'want it that way?' (Of course, I live on NY's Upper West Side -- sad to say, we rarely get 'authentic' ANYTHING here, no matter WHAT cuisine you choose!) I wonder what other chowhounds, San Francisco or NY, think about the 'sweetness' overkill in Thai cooking. (Disclaimer: Must admit I'm not a big sweet eater, in general. Am usually posting to discussions of potato chips! ;-> )

            1. re: Alice

              Maybe the Thais in Manhattan have figured out the same strategy as Chinese for Jewish taste purveyors? (g)

          2. re: Jim Leff

            Pork larb as chocolate egg cream? I don't think so. My favorite Thai restaurants (including Lotus of Siam and not including, btw, any Thai restaurant in the Bay Area) tend to have jackfruit larb and catfish larb, shrimp larb and liver larb, raw beef larb and nam sod, which may not technically be a larb but may be the most delicious of them all, pork sausage tossed with toasted rice, fried garlic and crunchy slivers of pigs ear.

            I'm not dissing your mention of kway teow, just noting that in California it tends to turn up way more in Malaysian and Singaporean restaurants than it does in Thai places. In the better New York Thai restaurants it is, as you say, ubiquitous.

            1. re: Pepper

              Interesting, yet once again, about the differences between the coasts in imported cuisines.

              It's impossible not to reach the abashed conclusion that the two coasts are hosts to evolving regional variations of foreign cuisines. I say "abashed" because there is, of course, the perception that once a cuisine (or any cultural tradition) is exported/expatriated it becomes a sort of photocopy of the real thing--more or less faded/degraded and exclusively referential to some Platonic form--and thus the concept of SF Thai as a legitimate "regional style" sounds almost silly. The prevailing theory is that any changes to that template constitute, for better or worse, corruption (i.e. "the melting pot"). So while it's common to make the point that Italian-American is an American cuisine, it's much harder to persuade people that this style of cooking, developed by people of Italian heritage, is an actual branch of Italian cuisine in its own right.

              Of course, this is exactly what's happening in myriad places with myriad cuisines. The world has already shrunk, people are already moving around more, so the process inexorably established. But as the lineages start to mature, non-geographical reclassification will come into acceptance. Honey chicken is a regional Chinese dish found in Miami, jerk chicken is totally "authentic" (if less delicious) when prepared in an oven (rather than over oil can fire) in Brooklyn, and kway tiow has become a card-carrying Thai dish among the burgeoning Thai population in Queens.

              There are dozens, maybe hundreds, more examples. In fact, I had a big argument with a Cantonese friend once who insisted to someone that egg rolls, mooshu pork, and general tso's chicken were not Chinese food. I think he was wrong. Like it or not, this kind of cooking is now a regional Chinese style, even if the region is thousands of miles away from the geographical epicenter and is much more about strip malls than pagodas.

              ciao

              1. re: Jim Leff

                I would have considered the examples raised as American food, by virtue of the fact that they were first "born" in the U.S. (a la citizenship), were created by Americans (whose ethnic roots might have been from other parts of the world), the circumstances that engendered the creation of the dishes (e.g. availability of ingredients, or lack thereof, local tastes etc.) and the culture that the food "matured" with.

                In the end, the definition might depend on the individual, but I feel that the criterion of heritage is only one of many.

                1. re: Limster

                  I absolutely agree that they can be considered American, but I think dual-citizenship is reasonable. You say they are "created by Americans (whose ethnic roots might have been from other parts of the world)", but if you take out the word "might", and talk about dishes cooked pretty much entirely by a single immigrant ethnic group, that does permit a claim to they're being of that ethnicity, in addition to being American by virtue of their birthright here.

                  Maybe this is all just a result of my having recently read Neil Stephenson's "The Diamond Age", in which the near-future is portrayed as a world in which heritage/nationality/ethnicity is almost completely untethered to geographical location. I think the world is starting to look a little bit like that, and I don't mind the concept so long as nobody tries to forcefully categorize people against their will. It's got to be voluntary and non-exclusionary. I want honorary citizenship in all of 'em!

                  But I'm wandering even more from the subject. Aack, somebody stop me before I digress again...

                  ciao

              2. re: Pepper

                The big thing in Sydney for the last year or two has been the emergence of more northern-style Thai.
                Larb-wise, this new wave of I-San restaurants frequently use catfish in their salads where you'd typically encounter pork, and the stringiness of the dry-fried fish is why the northern Thais like to use it.

                I've vowed to never eat a ubiquo green curry or fish cake ever again. The growing prevalence of prawn-stuffed zucchini, fresh sausage and beancurd rolls, steamed scallops with ginger, tomato and chilli and banana flower salad and the slightly less exciting crying tiger beef, however, is encouraging.

                Do you guys - either coast - get honeycombed bible salad there?

                1. re: Pat Nourse

                  Honeycomb tripe salad? Sure. Just had some last night, at the revamped L.A. Food Court in Hollywood. Not bad, although the nam sod was particularly killer. (Why is this thread on the Bay Area board, btw?)

            2. re: Pepper

              Yep, the green papaya salad tells it all.

              Maybe it's just that joy of first discovery, but I have not had Thai food in the Bay Area that is as exciting as my first exposure to the cuisine 20 years ago in Los Angeles. I don't remember the restaurants but my friends who were in Laurel Canyon took me to their favorites not too far away. I'd leave the ordering up to them and the flavors in my memory so much more explosive and fresh.

              1. re: Melanie Wong
                &
                "Fine"

                Many years ago, I recall being the only nonAsian in the original Racha next to the old police station on Ellis in SF.

                Subsequently, I cannot recall seeing Thai diners in any Thai place I visited, which, naturally, always made me assume the kitchen aimed its selections and techniques at Westerners--too sweet and way too mild.

                I got tired of trying to persuade servers we really did want our food "spicy" (e.g., hot) and found fewer and fewer places even offering the condiments I recalled from early exposure to Thai places, which at least permitted revving up the fish sauce/heat components.

                As for Chinese broccoli in a Thai restaurant--it's unheard of in my SF Thai dining experience.

                1. re: "Fine"

                  Racha was my first sample of San Francisco Thai. It was a memorable evening because my car died right in front. Fortunately we were able to roll it into a parking space, and being chowhounds, needed some food to take away the pain. Our luck continued as we were seated at the table under the wall telephone. In the days before cell phones, I was able to coordinate with the tow truck and the people we were supposed to hook up with in between bites of dinner. I even remember what we had - fish cakes, satay and pork and spinach with peanut sauce.

                  Don't you think the current rendition of Racha sucks? Or at least it did when I was there two years ago.

            3. re: Jim Leff

              Jim, for me the litmus test is the quality of the curries. If you order a penang, mussamon or green curry and it sucks, never come back. This also goes for the Tom Kha Gai and the Tom Yum Goong.

              Same for the noodles. But I prefer siam noodles (more like chow fun) and Pad Siew over pad thai. Pad thai is overrated.

              Also another indicator is if the place uses real jasmine rice, although many good thai places dont use it anymore, which is disappointing.

              1. re: Jim Leff

                Here's a vote from a non-coastal voice - Chicago. I can't speak from extensive experience on the west coast, but for my money Chicago has always had much better and more thai retaurants than anything on the east coast - specifically new york, philadelphia and boston - Thai food being such an established part of our culinary repertoire that every neighborhood has at least one neighborhood thai place. This makes differentiation even more important.

                I agree that a vital test is in the salads - papaya as well as nam sod - they should have the balance of sweet,spicy,sour, salty and be bright - papaya salad being the best judge (since many don't even offer this) but nam sod is important - many places tone down the level of fresh ginger and even some times cilantro - if a place is willing to use authentic levels of these ingredients in the dish it is a good sign.

                Heat of course is another good sign - it shows that a restaurant is either unwilling to or has not yet had to accommodate its tastes for an american audience.

                Tom yum goong for me is an excellent judge of a restaurant's ability to handle balance and there are a number of thai restaurants which I will frequent solely based on their ability to make this manna.

                I would not judge on seafood - I have found that this is a specialization thing in a number of cases a thai restraurant which does seafood well (squid to just the right point of tenderness) may actually not do many of the standards with the care you would expect, and a place that overcooks its squid (though not its shrimp-avoid these places like the plague) may actually handle other aspects of the cuisine admirably

                "unusual" dishes are generally a good sign - eel, frog legs - but try them. In a few cases I have been excited by seeing them on the menu but disappointed by the execution, in particular with eel - once getting it given to me sliced in cross-section so that each bite contained bone to pick out and I could never savor the richness of the meat.

                An automatic disqualifier from my book is the substitution of "standard" broccoli for chinese broccoli in say lad nar.

                I guess what I am saying is like most complex cuisines, a restaurant will have strengths and weaknesses and you may choose one restaurant for its seafood another for tom yum goong, another for salads and if you find one that can do them all, as james brown would say, jump back and kiss yourself.

              2. I don't really have reliable rules of thumb for thai restaurants here, but there are a few things I look for:

                The fish cakes (tod mun) should be flat, not plump, and evenly dotted with thin slices of string beans for a minute crunch in the otherwise bouncy fish cake. (Note: Thep Phanom fails this test only because their fish cakes are plump, but is otherwise a fantastic Thai place by local standards; probably my favorite in SF.)

                The repeitoire of seafood dishes is another thing that I look for. The more the merrier; there's lots of coast in Thailand. How tasty is the tom yam soup or the squid salad?

                I haven't seen any Thai places using the small and potent chillis that are commonly used in SE Asia. So any signficant increase in heat level above and beyond the average is always welcome.

                I would defintely eat at any place that serves anything above and beyond fried bananas and ice cream for dessert. Haven't seen any good desserts in any of the more well known Thai places here. I'm particularly fond of (and truly truly miss) the little desserts consisting of waterchestnut bits, little sago pearls and coconut milk steamed in a tiny box made with pandan leaves and served chilled. At my favorite Thai place in Singapore, dessert is a buffet of countless sweets, many laden with coconut milk in different guises.

                2 Replies
                1. re: Limster

                  Thanks, Limster. The dessert thing was, indeed, an East Coastism, it seems.

                  Around here, if you ask, there's often sticky rice with banana, or steamed bread, or frenchy pastries, or shaved ice stuff. I'd be pretty depressed indeed with fried bananas and ice cream.

                  On the other hand, around here the rest of the meal ain't so great, so.........

                  1. re: Limster

                    I'm with you on the squid salad - is the texture right (hard to do), balance of flavors, etc. I also pay attention to the way the ingredients are cut - are they uniform pieces appropriate to the dish and not hacked - much the same way that I judge a real Cantonese chef from a pretender.

                    A few years ago, Thai cuisine was so hot, many Vietnamese restaurant owners converted themselves to Thai places. Hopefully, with the interest in Vietnamese on the upswing, the pretenders will take a hike.

                  2. My first rule of thumb is to look for a wide-ranging menu and in particular a section of "chef's specials" or "recommended dishes." This seems to be the quickest way to tell if a place is serving standard street-stall fare or has a menu with more depth.

                    One test dish is nam prik pla too (spicy shrimp paste served with fried mackerel and steamed vegetables), or similar dishes that feature a spicy dip. These seem to vary quite a bit from shop to shop, and often aren't served at all (especially if a restaurant doesn't cater to Thai customers).

                    Other than that, I'd agree with the postings above about overall spiciness, quality of salads, larb, soups, etc. And negative points for giving me chopsticks. (I eat most of my Thai food in Tokyo.)