Dinner at Thep Phanom, SF
I definitely liked Thep Phanom a lot more the last time I went. It wasn't horrible this time and I was OK with the food, but it wasn't as striking as my last trip and there was definitely a nagging feeling of unfulfillment. If all you care about is good tasting food, this place is great - nice presention, and things are well cooked, fresh ingredients and so on - but I felt that it was not as authentic as my first trip.
I wonder if it was the things that we ordered. Most of the dishes were sauced similarly - the "Thaitantic" beef, the fried whole tipila and the duck. There were subtle differences, but nothing with any major kind of contrast. Each one of us picked a dish and maybe it was a bad coincidence. On the whole the flavors were a bit more earthy and spicy my last time, this time it was mainly sweet basil and lemongrass.
The last time I really loved their fried crab roll special that really impressed me - crab wrapped in a crackling bean curd/tofu skin and an ultra-tender beef salad ("Crying Tiger") that was fairly spicy and very tangy. You could say that the fried whole tipila I had tonight was impressively presented, curled and upright. But not quite up to the soulful standards that I've been taking for granted back home.
So after this trip I'm a bit ambivalent about Thep Phanom.
BTW, we didn't have much problems with service - some of my friends have complained about the way the rushed you out, (and see the recent general topics thread about pet peeves), but it didn't happen to us even though the places was packed. Service was efficient and fast and the check came quickly, but I didn't feel pressured.
I wonder why I have such bad luck with Thai places in SF on the second visit - I loved Khan Toke the first time (great squid salad) but was underwhelmed the second. (OK, Marnee the second time was about the same as Marnee the first time, but I was never really super into the place for some reason.) I hope this isn't going to be a trend for me because it seems that the only place I can count on now is Thanying back home.
I have lived around the corner from Thep Phanom since it first opened. Originally, it was a great cheap neighborhood place and we ate there once a week. I've had everything on the menu at least three times. We did find that you had be careful in ordering to get diverse tastes. Some of our friends were kinda surprised by our demands of co-ordinating our orders, but it prevented the "same sauce" surprise.
I have found their quality to be pretty consistantly high. But as much as I love their food, their prices have gone way up and their dining experience ("magic") has gone downhill dramatically. The final straw for me was when I had to wait 45 minutes to be seated when I had a reservation - which might have been ok if they had just apologized - but it was very clear they could not have possibly cared less. Maybe its ok on off hours.
For the past few years, we only do take out and that's mostly because they have a "Magical Curative Soup" - a spicy coconut shrimp soup. Whenever I am sick I get that and a side order of rice, then I throw the rice in the soup. The chilies clear my sinuses, the coconut soothes my tummy, the rice bloats with the broth and becomes soft kernals of YUM and the shrimp/veggies are a treat. I always feel much better after having this soup. We've tried getting similar soup from other Thai places that deliver and none have had the quality of ingredients, the right balance of spice and creaminess.
This is a short review of Thep Phanom I wrote a while ago. As you will be able to tell, I think very little of this place.
Thai food is rarely bad. It seems to be a cultural characteristic of Thais that it's difficult for them to cook poorly. While Chinese restaurants vary widely in quality from great to horrid, Thai food is usually good to great, hardly ever poor.
I have eaten in Thai restaurants all over the world. In Thailand, in New York, Paris, Malaysia...
Although Thep Phanom is consistently rated as one of the best Thai restaurants in San Francisco, it, sadly, is one of the few really bad Thai restaurants.
I've visited Thep Phanom three times over the past four years, each time waiting at least a year before being talked into it again.
This time, I went with four friends, and we ordered a selection of dishes which should be representative of their cuisine.
We had a coconut milk vegetable soup, which appeared to have been made by pouring a can of coconut milk into a pot, adding vegetables and a bit of lemon juice, but no other spices or herbs. It was cloyingly rich.
We then had calamari with garlic and pepper, which was somewhat acceptable, two curries, which were rich, underspiced and oversweetened.
We also had a mushroom dish, in which the mushrooms were obviously canned, and had not been well washed, so they had the distinct flavor of the can, and little could be done to cover it up.
I expect far more from such a highly rated restaurant, and have always been deeply disappointed by Thep Phanom.
Other Thai restaurants which I have found to be far better include Manora, Thai House and actually just about any other place in San Francisco!
If you really know and enjoy Thai food, stay far away from Thep Phanom
While my experience wasn't as horrible as yours (I'd rank it at about Khan Toke's level - which is rather unimpressive as per a recent thread but not deadly), I don't see myself running back to Thep Phanom.
To be honest, I haven't had any Thai in SF that is close to authentic except that one calamari salad at Khan Toke and the crab roll special at Thep Phanom. (That's counting these places and Marnee, and a bunch of neighborhood places.) Most Thai places here tend to use too much basil and sugar whereas I prefer the heavy spice and heat that I've grown accustomed to from Thai restaurants in Singapore.
Incidentally, I've also yet to see a chicken feet salad in a Thai place in SF.
Actually, a friend just heard my whining and suggested I give Thai House on Noe a whirl - is that the same Thai House you're refering to?
The Thai House that I liked is the one on Market and 16th, but the one on Noe has the same ownership, I think.
A Thai friend likes Plearn Thai Cuisine, and dislikes some that I like, notably Cha Am (in Berkeley).
Here are some Thai restaurants that I've enjoyed:
Plearn Thai Cuisine
2050 University Ave, Berkeley (510) 841-2148
1543 Shattuck Ave, Berkeley (510) 848-9664
Khun Phoa (Market Street)
2367 Market St, San Francisco (415) 431-3463
Thai House Bar & Cafe
2200 Market St., San Francisco (415)864-5006
Ploy II Thai Cuisine
1770 Haight St, San Francisco (415) 387-9224
3221 Mission St, San Francisco (415) 826-4639
For some reason no local restaurants seem to serve a dessert that's common in New York Thai places, and which I love: Pumpkin Custard. It's actually more like a brownie in consistancy, and is made of palm sugar and, coconut milk, with strips of pumpkin on top. This is Faek Thong Kaeng Buat, not to be confused with custard IN a pumpkin, which is Sangkaya Phak Thong.
Plearn had a reputation for many years as the best Thai restaurant in the East Bay (it was also one of the first).
I ate there twice and the food didn't appeal to me: it seemed heavy and oily. I usually eat at Siam Cuisine (farther down University at San Pablo). I've also been meaning to go back to Nakapan, where I had several excellent meals many years ago. I thought it had gone out of business until I heard someone mention it recently.
A Thai former co-worker preferred Saysetha (in north Oakland on Telegraph near Alcatraz), where I've also eaten several times -- but somehow I always end up at Siam Cuisine, which must mean something!