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San Bruno Thai Temple Not Up To Berkeley's (Admittedly Not That High) Standard

Some friends and I headed to San Bruno's Thai Temple (Wat Mongkolratanaram) for its Sunday lunch. Aside from one curry and the kanon krok coconut dessert, we weren't happy with our meal. I definitely enjoy Berkeley's more (see [1] below for my opinion of Berkeley's). Still, it was a fun experience. The San Bruno temple is several factors smaller in terms of food selection and probably an order of magnitude smaller in terms of crowd size. This lead to a very casual atmosphere in which we could watch the food being made and chat with the cooks. The later, however, was difficult because most of them didn't speak English. (In contrast, the Berkeley Thai Temple gets so many non-Asians that everyone manning a counter speaks passable non-English, but it's so busy it's impossible to simply chat.)

We tried most of items they offered:

* Spring rolls (deep fried) with sweet and sour sauce. Perfectly fine.

* Papaya salad. We ordered medium spiciness and it was way too spicy for us. I have no problem eating a full meal of Sichuan food without any mild dishes to tone the spices down, but I couldn't finish my share of this dish. (I think they put in five peppers? Maybe get two next time?) I took the large amount of leftovers home and found I drank half a gallon of water while eating half a plate of papaya salad. Jeez. Anyway, it was neat watching them make the salad, crushing ingredients with a mortar and pestle, tossing it, tasting it, adding more ingredients, watching the other women come by and taste, then make oodles of corrections (adding more sugar, fish sauce, mixing it with some salad from her bowl, etc.). Although my experience at the Berkeley temple varies a bit, it's always been better than this.

* Pork salad. Didn't excite us. Mostly ground pork with tossed with green onions, red onions, parsley, and ample salt and pepper. Served at room temperature.

* A banana leaf filled with a salmon and cabbage casserole/quiche. Eating shredded salmon is somewhat weird. Most of us thought it was okay, though the one person that didn't grow up eating casserole really didn't like it.

* "Pumpkin" curry with chicken. Easily the best dish. A light and tasty yellow-ish curry sauce tossed with some form of squash -we debated what kind-.

* Beef curry. Perhaps because of some herb, one person not inaccurately described this as tasting "like dirt."

* Kanon krok. (Just like at the Berkeley temple.) These are effectively coconut pancakes the size of silver dollars. Made in a special machine, the outside gets a little crisp while the inside remains mushy. People enjoyed them, describing them as a little like a creme brulee, with an internal texture of rice pudding (without the kernels of rice).

The items we saw but didn't try were: some sort of dumplings (chive), sticky rice with mango, some sort of pancake that vaguely resembled green onion pancakes, a salmon curry, a mixed vegetable dish, and a whole fish. (I'm not sure the latter could be ordered or if it was just being prepped for something.)

Total was under ten dollars per person. We had leftovers of all but the pumpkin curry and kanon krok, though no one was excited by them.

Reviews from the last year on the San Bruno Thai Temple:
http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...
http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...

This report has been mirrored elsewhere on the web: http://markssfdiningclub.schtuff.com/...

[1] My opinion of Berkeley's: "Only open for lunch on Sundays, the Thai Temple is a fun place to eat outdoors and watch other Berkeleyans. But I don't understand why the longest lines at this place are always for the trays with the curries and pad thai dishes. Frankly, those items are usually fairly poor: think of a restaurant that can cook average Thai food for one, then imagine it attempting the same thing in bulk. Definitely below average.

Instead, one should try the papaya salad (made when you order it). Spicy yet refreshing, it's the standard by which other papaya salads elsewhere must measure up. The fried chicken -no, it's not actually Thai- is also pretty darn good. And if they're cooking those tiny fried coconut pancake desserts, they're worth trying at least once. With these few special dishes and the setting, this place can squeak by with three stars (out of five)."

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  1. Thanks for the report. Three chilis is my limit for the papaya salad here, and I will taste it a couple times to make sure that it's seasoned as I like. You shouldn't be shy about asking to taste it during the assembly process. What makes it superior to the version in Berkeley is that the papaya is shredded the old fashioned way, meaning that it's not shredded with a grater but by using a knife to make very fine cross-cuts. This gives the papaya fragments more uneven lengths and superior texture in the mouth. Also, the woman who makes the salad here pounds it much longer and harder to work in the flavorings. The smaller crowds are surely a factor compared to Berkeley, where there's more time to do things the right way here.

    The pork larb is my top so far in Northern Calif. and second only to Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas. The liver and chitlins blended with the ground pork is not always available, but when it is, this dish totally rocks. The larb is made with many more kinds of dewy fresh unnamed herbs, a funky soulful fish sauce, and plenty of fresh lime juice zip. And, it has enough roasted rice powder (even for someone like me who wants a lot of it). I love how the warm pork mixture sizzles against the cold vegetables.

    Here's my photo of the elegant and refined hamok from the water festival in San Bruno in April -
    http://static.flickr.com/45/129965774...
    Made with coconut cream to form a soft and delicate salmon mousse, if you don't like the versions here, well, this is probably not your thing. Whenever I spot this on a restaurant menu, I almost always order it since it's not seen often, and few have been this good.

    The "pumpkin" was likely kabocha, which is squash and pumpkin cross. The beef curry sounds like you might have had a jungle curry, not something I've tried here. It's probably the one Thai dish that I loathe, after ordering it at three different places. I've asked what the putrid, dirt-tasting element is and have been told that it's the baby peppercorns mixed with the galangal. Dunno.

    If you should go back, stay away from the chive dumplings. I've had them twice and there's some medicinal element in the filling that reminds me of Listerine. Do order the fried chicken with sticky rice, which beats out Berkeley's version. The man who staffs that fry station makes them in smaller and more frequent batches so that it doesn't sit for long (I usually burn my mouth!). Also, he manages to get a golden brown, crackly skin AND juicy flesh.

    1. You are so right about the Berkeley Thai Temple food. I was absolutely delighted by this coconut dessert, Kanon Krok. The crispy outside and the warm puddinglike texture are out of this world. I also tried a bite of the other fried dessert they make right next to the Kanon Krok table. It was fantastic.

      On the other hand, the curries, noodles, etc. were passable but nothing to stand in line for. The only thing I disagree with you about is the green papaya salad. The one I got was totally unexciting. So, now I've realized I really only want one thing when I go to the Thai Temple...dessert!

      1 Reply
      1. re: sarvey

        The kanom krok was my only compelling reason for going to the Berkeley temple too. Once the San Bruno folks started to make this, that went away.

        Edited to add: The Berkeley temple does have the advantage of offering salty crab as an option with the papaya salad. Or at least it used to.

      2. You know, I never got the rave review of the Thai Cultural Center brunch or the lines. Use to live on the other side of Ashby BART. Yes, authentic and going to a good cause no doubt, and you have to admire a community that serves itself and the wider community in such a nice way, yet I never thought it was outstanding.

        Admittedly I'm not a Thai-foodophile so I've only mentioned my thoughts in passing. But I have to agree, the noodles, curries and even the rice was only okay. The fried items also seem to be something to avoid. Never really ate the desserts because it always seemed too early in the day for that.

        The atmosphere and experience are of course unique. IF I were cynical, I'd say there's a big element of theme dining for the berkeley slacker set and old PC hipsters. Nothing wrong with going for the experience but it's still theme dining, or sort of eco-tourism dining.

        Take my comments for what they're worth...your mileage may vary.

        1 Reply
        1. re: ML8000

          Berkeley used to be good when the temple volunteers did all the cooking. But with success and the multitudes, corners have been cut.

        2. Mmmm... I'd like to try a bunch of dishes, but I can only eat so much on the spot. Is the San Bruno temple set up for "take out"? Would it help to bring my own (plastic) containers?

          3 Replies
          1. re: Jefferson

            There is some provision for to-go orders (especially for the sweets), but I have also seen folks there with their own containers, so it's probably appreciated. Do taste everything while it's fresh as the cooking is done on-site.

            http://flickr.com/photos/melaniewong/...

            1. re: Melanie Wong

              All the seats were full! I took orders of the chicken (very tasty) with sticky rice (very good moistness level, not too gooey, not too dry); papaya salad (ordered hot hot, they put in 10 chillies, but divided between another person and me; ouch); khanom krok (a bit too wet right off the griddle, but firmed up after 15 minutes of driving, and tasted very decadent); and two boxes of mango sticky rice. It was reasonably efficient, except for the khanom krock... the more experienced cook was distracted with making fried noodles, which made the line painfully slow at 11:50-12:20. I think this would make a good pre-picnic stop for a nice park nearby. Just need to find a nice park nearby. ;-)

              1. re: Jefferson

                Glad that a Thai cooking maven like you enjoyed the food. Also, the last time I was there I zoned out and missed my usual exit off the freeway. I think I took Crystal Springs off of 280 and passed a nice park that was crowded with kids for an Easter egg hunt.

          2. hello, please be tolerant of my ignorance, but I'd assumed that these temples are Buddhist, so was surprised to read the menu offerings. What religion/belief system are they temples for, and if they are Buddhist, is it like the Dalai Lama eating meat because he's so evolved it's irrelevant, or that the people preparing the food know that they're feeding non-Buddhists, and don't eat most of what they cook? thank you for your patience.

            3 Replies
            1. re: moto

              I asked about this my first time too. The Thai, Burmese, and some other Southeast Asian schools of Buddhism allow meat eating, whereas Chinese do not.

              1. re: moto

                >is it like the Dalai Lama eating meat because he's so evolved it's irrelevant<

                I'm certainly no authority on the Dalai Lama, but my understanding is that he feels that meatless is best but that some people, including himself, can't do it well (healthfully) and so you do the best you can for yourself.

                1. re: Mick Ruthven

                  thank you, m.wong and m. ruthven, you jogged my memory of the differing schools of Buddhism, basically one going northward, the other east and south from northern India; the Tibetan being more akin to the Chinese, hence the DL's preferred ideal. peace

              2. i actually think the san bruno one is better than the berkely one.

                i had been going to the berkely temple for about 10 years. back when it first started and all, but i don't bother making the trek out there anymore.

                then i heard about the san bruno one. (thank you chowhound)

                the papaya salad is really good here. very flavorful. nothing dulled down. its salty and sweet and spicy. it hits very high notes. i'm not sure you can blame them for making it too spicy for your tastes. if it was underseasoned or something, you'd have a case.

                the fried chicken. its excellent. crispy on the outside. a great chicken smell. but nice and moist on the inside. its almost the perfect rendition of this dish in the bay area. especially if you get one just out the fryer. add the sticky rice.

                i also find the beef noodle soup quite good too. the broth is nice and rich. although a bit oily for me (i have low tolerance for oil in soup... unless its embedded like santa's)

                so three dishes. ample portion for 15 dollars. this is kinda what i continually order. oh and the beef jerky with sticky rice and the coconut dessert...

                4 Replies
                1. re: spork

                  The first time I tried the San Bruno temple we bought a nam prik sort of condiment that we called ratatouille on steroids. Haven't seen it again, have you?

                  1. re: Melanie Wong

                    can't say i've seen it. where was it 'stationed'?? i'm guessing with the groceries or something? you could probably ask if you knew you were going to be in the neighborhood the following week.

                    i'd even assume that you could ask them right then and there as they probably have a jar of it in the back somewhere.

                    1. re: spork

                      It was right where you enter the food area from the parking lot, on one of those first one or two tables. This was home made with many veggies (including eggplant hence the ratatouille comparison) and handed to me in a 1/2 pint plastic tub. Getting home later, I discovered that the plastic container was what hospitals use for keeping track of patients' dentures. Hopefully it was washed well!

                      1. re: Melanie Wong

                        eww... well i guess you're keeping the crowd levels to a minimum.

                        in that case i would just ask. if i'm there i'll ask and give an update.

                2. The food at the temple in San Bruno -though not spectacular by any means- is vastly superior to the stuff at Berkeley Thai temple. More things are made fresh at San Bruno, while most items are pre-made and transported to the temple at Berkeley.

                  Frankly, that crazy scene there is not compelling to me in the least, and there were a lot more non-Thais at the Berkeley temple every time I was there, whereas the San Bruno scene are mostly Thais.

                  As for the question of eating meat and Buddism, there are many schools of Buddhism which allow the eating of meat, even some schools of Buddhism in China allow meat eating.

                  1. The best thing about the San Bruno Thai temple are the fried chicken (best I've had outside of Thailand) and the Kanom Krok. The papaya salad is pretty good, but I've also had a hard time getting the spiciness right. One time I ordered it spicy, she put in 10 or 11 peppers, and it was almost impossible to eat. On another occasion, 5 or 6 peppers was bland! The mango with sticky rice can be good, depending on how ripe the mangoes are. I have not been as happy with the precooked items like the curries.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: Malik

                      I just finished guzzling the dressing from my salad this evening. :-)

                      I'm fairly certain these are not professional cooks. Two ladies were making papaya salads, but only one was tasting the finished product. Her expression didn't reveal her opinion, and she didn't adjust the seasoning after tasting. Working close together, they flipped over a dish of white powder that had been going into the salads in tiny doses... well, you get the picture. The results are remarkably good, considering.

                    2. Links for Berkeley Thai Temple (Wat Mongkolratanaram) and San Bruno's Wat Buddhapradeep

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                      Wat Mongkolratanaram (Thai Buddhist Temple)
                      1911 Russell St, Berkeley, CA 94703

                      Wat Buddhapradeep
                      310 Poplar Ave, San Bruno, CA