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Jul 15, 2008 08:59 PM

Dine & Dash - Thai Cafe (Irvine)

You can see photos and this same writeup on my blog:

We’ve been watching the transformation of the building that once housed El Conejo into Thai Cafe, which opened last weekend. It’s a standalone building between two strip malls that collectively act as Irvine’s defacto Chinatown. Like a Thai monkey in the middle, it offers a non-Chinese alternative to the many good restaurants on this intersection of Jeffrey and Walnut.

While the outside of the building is nothing to look at, the months spent gutting the inside have paid off. It’s a handsome room with a clean modern design that’s elegant enough for casual dining.

You can’t operate a Thai restaurant in America without the obligatory pad thai on the menu. We expect it, like chips and salsa at a Mexican restaurant, or edamame at a Japanese one, as if these items are laser etched onto every menu in their native countries. We received a restrained version, easy on the tamarind, and easier still on the palm sugar.

You’ll find horrible versions of pad thai out there. The worst offenders drown their noodles in a ketchup-red syrup, like pad thai a la Chef Boyardee. You’ll occasionally find really complex versions tasting of garlic, citrus, scallion and dried shrimp. [ed-before you ask me where, it’s at a place in New York that has long since closed] Thai Cafe hits a not-too-gringo, not-too-ethnofunk grounder down the middle, easily fielded by Irvine’s Asian American set.

Boat noodles are one of my favorite Thai dishes, when I can find them. It’s something of a specialist’s dish. It’s a beef noodle dish, like pho, but the rich brown soup is more heavily spiced with star anise, lightly sweeted, thicker, and murky. Boat noodles soup is traditionally thickened with beef or pork blood, which adds a minerally edge and a substantial body to the soup. Thai Cafe’s didn’t display forensic blood evidence, like the version at Sapp Coffee House in Hollywood, so if you didn’t already know, you might happily sip away at the five-spice scented soup, unaware of your vampirical tendencies.

I was offered a choice of noodles and spice level, but not a choice of meats. Mine came with several perfectly simmered cuts of beef, and for once, a meatball that I enjoyed. Usually, the little rubber golf balls that come with these kinds of soup dishes are an afterthought.

You don’t accidentally make a soup this good the first week a restaurant’s open. I asked where else they’ve cooked, and they own Thai Kitchen, also in Irvine. Where their first store is geared more for lower priced takeout lunches, this new location offers a more sophisticated menu and higher priced items. Entrees are $8.95 to $15.95, with the majority priced at $10.95.

I didn’t see any of really funky jungle dishes with Northern Thai or Cambodian influences. They’re not competing against Stanton’s Thai Nakorn, Norwalk’s Renu Nakorn, or the Thai Town holes in walls up in Hollywood. This is a solidly suburban menu, but one that’s worth exploring in more detail. It’s usually a good idea to give new restaurants a couple months to get their act together, but based on my first try, it seems they already do.

Thai Cafe
14715 Jeffrey Rd.
Irvine, CA 92618
949 559 5382
Mon-Sun 11am - 10pm
(Hours may change. I was told they’re considering staying open until 12 midnight)

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  1. I had wondered about this place.

    Wow, El Conejo finally bit the bullet. The end of an era.

    1. Thanks for the great review Professor Salt. :) I'll have to try this place out next time I'm in Irvine.

      1. Thanks for thew review! Definitely will check it out soon...

        1. I visited Thai Cafe over the weekend, and thought it was pretty good, but I'm no Thai food expert, so take my comments for what they're worth.

          We were originally trying to get Chinese food for lunch. We initially tried to go to Sam Woo, but saw an moderate sized crowd outside, so we drove over to SW Seafood, where the line was even longer. Drove across the street to China Garden and saw people waiting on the grass far away from the front door, not a good indication that we'll get food quickly.

          Not sure what else was nearby, I remembered the Professor's review on Thai Cafe, and saw empty tables inside, so I suggested it to the family, and they agreed.

          Being with family members who were unfamiliar with Thai food, we stuck to mostly safe and familiar dishes on the menu. We ordered two appetizers, the shrimp egg rolls and chicken satay, the tom yom koong soup, and two entrees, the pad thai noodles, and the pad see ewe noodles.

          Both appetizers were very good. For some reason, I always find the egg rolls at Thai restaurants to be much better than ones at Chinese restaurants, as they seem to pack them with more meat and less vegetables. I will continue to order the egg rolls at every Thai restaurant I go to until I run across a bad one, which I haven't so far.

          The tom yum koong soup was new to me, and it had an interesting taste, with some similarity with the herbs to Vietnamese pho, but way more pepper & spicier.

          The pad thai noodles tasted pretty good, but seemed to have a little less egg and shrimp than what I expected. The pad see ewe noodles, one of my favorite dishes, was very good, and its similarity to Chinese chow fun made it a hit among family members, as this dish was gobbled up very quickly.

          Overall, I thought it was pretty good, but prices might be slightly higher, not a surprise given the Irvine zip code. Given the scarcity of Thai restaurants in central-southern OC, I consider Thai Cafe a good option in the area for those who find it a bit too far to drive to Bangkok Taste or Thai Nakorn.

          Incidentally, the owner of Thai Cafe is also the owner of Thai Kitchen on Barranca, which I think is next to the Philly's Best in Irvine. I hadn't visited Thai Kitchen before, but I will now, as it's slightly closer to work for lunch.