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Nov 3, 2012 06:23 PM

Tommy Thai - Mountain View

There is a dearth of good, consistent Southeast Asian food in the Peninsula area. For a long time, Shanna Thai (Mountain View) and Lotus Thai Bistro (Palo Alto) were my standbys but both were inconsistent. Shanna Thai could be too sweet - and every waiter had a different interpretation of what "very spicy" meant. Lotus Thai Bistro was very consistent on the spice level but their menu items ran the range of very satisfying to not worth eating.

After a particularly horrible dinner at Shanna (dishes were watery and unevenly heated, the curry tasted like fish sauce and nothing else).

Enter Tommy Thai. The menu is very large - and I've only eaten from the first two pages (Cambodian Specialties and House specialties) - but I would say the food is flavorful, well-balanced and satisfying. A very emphatic "yes we can take it VERY spicy" did the trick on the spice level (this results in a lot of the small chilies so don't do so unless you can handle it). The ingredients taste fresh. The flavors between different dishes are unique - it's not one size fits all sauces. The Cambodian stews are very different from the Thai curries I normally get. The Salaw Machou Ktis with its combination of funky, green and sweet flavors is particularly unique and well-done.

So, I would definitely give Tommy Thai a try if you are craving good Southeast Asian food and are in the area.

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  1. Cool, always happy to hear about another place to try Cambodian cooking. And from the name of this place, I'd have overlooked it as another cookiecutter "Thai" resto.

    Tommy Thai
    1482 W. El Camino Real
    Mountain View, CA 94010
    Tel: (650) 988-6857

    10 Replies
    1. re: Melanie Wong

      Yes! I had driven by hundreds of times and passed it up, then once I saw that they did Cambodian I became intrigued. Turns out owner and head guy "Tommy" is Cambodian and he named the place after himself *shrug.*

      1. re: goldangl95

        You might enjoy reading this old discussion about Cambodian cooking.

        I've tried two Cambodian-owned places in Santa Rosa, and frankly, their Lao and Vietnamese dishes were better than the Cambodian dishes.

        1. re: Melanie Wong

          Intriguing re Cambodian cooking. Tommy's definitely has the stir fry dishes mentioned in the thread. But there's a fair amount of funky/spicy items too. I'm not sure which is more predominant/authentic. My previous experience with Cambodian restaurants is there is is a fair amount of both though they may play up the less funky side as it has more broader commercial appeal.

          1. re: goldangl95

            I had to look up Ma-Om, listed as an ingredient on the Cambodian menu. It's the khmer name for rice paddy herb,

            1. re: Melanie Wong

              I ate here tonight, and have to say that I very much liked the Cambodian dish, and was not wowed by the Thai dish.

              Regarding spice, we were told to use a "1 to 10" spice level. I said 7, for dishes both listed as spicy on the menu. Both dishes had good flavor but almost no heat, so I was not as excited as goldangl95 about the spice issue. In Thailand, the hottest dishes are literally blinding, 8 should be scorching, so I dialed back by 1 to get to girlfriend-friendly (she likes a good bit of spice but could not eat full-force in thailand) and I would expect 7 to have a lot of kick for dishes that are naturally spicy.

              Putting the system on a 1 to 10 scale didn't help issues what so ever, and is actually the sign of a timid kitchen. I wish that thai places would stop asking how spicy _anything_ should be, and simply make their dishes the way they want them to taste. For the uninformed (and there was a lot on the menu I wasn't informed about), a guide about which dishes are hot could be added, and the ability to tone down some dishes can be requested but not required. I think this place thought "10 is how the dish should naturally be, 7 means dumb it down significantly". What I meant was "don't pile on any extra peppers causing pain just to make it hot - just give it to me like it's supposed to be made".

              My favorite adherent to this credo is the old Woodside Thai Spot (now a different thai place), where the guy would just lecture you if you thought his food was too hot. He would warn you, but if you asked if the dish was spicy he'd direct you to another dish if he thought you couldn't take it. His dishes were a little lacking in complexity, and the place is gone now, but he had the right spirit.

              The cambodian dish was delightful. It was funky, multilayered, almost like a roux, with a form of lemongrass pounded into a paste. I've never had that particular taste before, and was very, very excited about the dish, although I don't know enough about cambodian to comment on the authenticity (I spent a couple of days in Siam Reap, but that's a tourist hell-hole). Very good stuff. When I come back, I will order more cambodian.

              We ordered the Cashew Chicken, a dish we've come to appreciate at Amarin. The menu correctly described the dish requiring dried peppers, and the roasted dried pepper taste (hot but not very) combined with the sweet in the nuts makes the dish. Unfortunately, at Tommy's, although the menu described the dish correctly, the kitchen cooked it without any peppers (only with standard american red and green bell peppers). None at all. This in ordering the food 7-hot, which - to me - should be license on hot dishes to get tears freely flowing. I don't know if this was a mistake or a "white guy" rounding error, but this was a poor showing of a dish. Other than the lack of pepper, this dish was nicely fresh in combination of tastes and underlying flavor, as well as chicken that was well prepared.

              The place is getting a lot of white people - there's not a big thai community here - and I did taste the kind of good fundamentals and complexity. But timidity on the thai side, on a dish that should have been hot. I have the same problem with this dish at Amarin - they always include the nice roasted hot peppers, but about 1/3 the time I get the dish as served here - not even a slight kick - and 2/3 of the time I get a nice robust dish.

              On a plus note, the Singha was extraordinarily cold.

              So, my experience with this place was no where near as positive as goldangl95. The place is using good "funk" as described, good freshness, but seriously having problems representing on the hot side - not that it needs to be hotter, but some thai dishes work with the hot pepper laid on solid, and they were unwilling to do so. This is especially bothersome as the place has a wonderfully authentic - at least, fresh-tasting - cambodian side.

              I don't know if someone can try to tell these guys that they should abandon all idea of dumbing down their food, and serve the real deal. The bay area is hopelessly bereft of good Thai food, and has enough people who have eaten in Thailand and get at least a bit of what Thai food really should be. They will get a much greater following if they abandon all concept of "tell me how hot" and make it the way the chef thinks it should be from his or her town and knowledge. That would gain respect and a following _fast_. The menu can simply have "these dishes are presented at the natural spice level in Thailand. If you wish for less spicy dishes, please consult your server"

              1. re: bbulkow

                Glad you checked it out!

                I completely understand your point of view. Though I will respectfully disagree, at the perceived conclusion. The Cambodian dish is really quite unique. Further, the backbones of the dishes (e.g. the ingredients, spices, sauces) are very well done. It's much easier to get the chili level heat adjusted than it is to tell a restaurant hey - your curry recipes lack complexity and need to be reworked. Though as, noted below, maybe it's just easier for me to get the chili heat adjusted . . .

                Sorry you had such problems getting them to use heat or chilis. There may be a white bias (I am not -so I can see how I was OK but others wouldn't - a very sad bias that my significant other rants on frequently).

                I would say try again on the spicy level? I realize it's super frustrating, and that having to almost argue/insist with restaurant owners is a pain, so I understand if people just don't want to deal. But it's honestly the first place in a long time I've been to in the Bay Area for Thai food where they have the backbones right. Once we were able to negotiate out the chili heat as well - I've been really really happy that this restaurant exists.

                1. re: goldangl95

                  I see a lot of promise in the place. It was a monday, who knows. The thai dish simply didn't have the correct ingrediants - the ingrediants on the menu - so maybe it was a misfire. I agree that there's a lot correct about the freshness and basic prep.

                  If you had been there, I hope you would have agreed that dish was wrong. You don't have to disagree with me about that, because you weren't there.

                  The room is kind of great. Has that dark wood authentic thai look, as best as you could do with the kind of converted whatever they have. I wish them well ---

                  But "I just call 'em like I see 'em"

                  If you have some in with those guys, or they simply listen to you, please plea with them to not ask about spice level and have some confidence. The front of house was very tenative - as if she knew the chef could do all the dishes very authentic, and was trying to protect us. F that. Come out firing.

                  Let me ask - what do you say when the waitress says "how hot do you want it, on a scale of 1 to 10"? I detailed what I said, and I thought it was sensible.

                  Let me mention the polar opposite - iDumpling up in RWC, where we were the night before. The owner foisted 5 spice cold beef app on us, and it was great, exactly what we wanted but didn't know. The dish could have popped a little more, but we were the only english speakers in the house --- the owner treated us great. No question about if we wanted a dumbed-down version of anything, and we had an excellent 20 buck meal. while it wasn't the bay area's best dumplings, the entire experience was very pleasant, and GF said "we have to come here more".

                  1. re: bbulkow

                    The first time I went, at the end of the meal I told the waitress in a very light, joking tone that was really good I really liked it - but we can take it spicier. And she said oh good to know!

                    So that made me feel they would be open to it. So the next time we went, and they said how spicy, I just said VERY spicy (maybe added something like don't worry we can take it). This resulted in renditions with a fair amount of little chilis adding the sweating/nose running/tingly sensation while keeping everythig in balance.

                    I think restaurants who don't get many authentic food seeking customers are really afraid when new people come in the door that they'll reject the food. If you reassure them that you won't - if it's too spicy that's your bad not the restaurant's - I think they'll accommodate.

                    Note - I don' think they'll be as fiery, gut wrenching spicy as authentic Thai food if you were to say VERY spicy. As noted in the thread Melanie cited, Cambodian food may (or may not!) be less chili centric than Thai food. So the chef may have that bias.

                    If you do again, I am very curious how it goes!

                    1. re: goldangl95

                      I find asking for "Thai Hot" works for me. I haven't tried it a Tommy, but it works at Thai Basil in Sunnyvale. A friend that has a Thai wife suggested it.

                      1. re: maxmanx

                        Thai Hot usually works, but is troublesome. If the place is really cooking Thai Hot, then I order different dishes. I'll order one hot dish and a few cool ones. Some kitchens seem to take "thai hot" as a challenge to dump chilis into dishes, and wreck the balance of the dish.

                        I would simply like a thai restaurant that makes thai food to the taste and spice level that the thais eat it. By default. This should not be too much to ask.

                        I agree about the timidity factor, and I think owners and chefs should consider taste and authenticity first, that's a winning combination in the end.

    2. What do you think of Amarin? That's my "standard thai" along with Thai Time in San Carlos. My main problem with Amarin is getting the spice right - it takes some poking and they' go over "spicy" into "too hot for the girlfriend" pretty easily.

      1 Reply
      1. re: bbulkow

        I find Amarin very average, but I've only been there a few times before giving up. Not that I'm the greatest expert, but I find great Thai food (or Cambodian food for that matter) takes pride in layering all the tastes (sweet, spicy, salty, savory, funky (e.g. fish sauce/meaty flavors) etc.). In most places, they tend to make a few different sauces/curries in a very safe, sweet way. They very carefully avoid any sort of funky or acidic flavor. Then if someone asks for "authentically spicy" they dump chilis or chili oil into them. If not done properly, things can quickly ramp up from sickly sweet to the chili heat burning out all the other flavors.

        I think Tommy Thai (IMHO) has Amarin Thai beat for three reasons:
        1. It's easy to find parking/drop by for take out.
        2. Their ingredients are really pretty fresh. No funky tasting fish, or chicken with lots of gristly parts or with that taste of frozen old meat, very quickly and abruptly reheated.
        3. The Cambodian dishes are unique (they have some unique other dishes as well) AND their sauces are flavorful and complex with the chili heat adding to the complexity. There is that bit of funk combined with sweet that can be off-putting for some (but with the green-ness of the and the heat from the chilli it really comes together for me).


        4. Be careful with the spicyness when ordering at Tommy's. I'd start at medium and see how your girlfriend can handle it before moving spicier. Medium was too mild for me, but I imagine for others it would be perfect.

      2. We finally made it here and sample two of the Cambodian dishes, the Char Kreoung stir-fry with salmon and the Salaw Machou Ktis stew with pork. Both had nice complex flavors. We ordered them both medium and were pleased with the spicing. Medium at most local Thai places gets you no heat at all; this had a nice cumulative afterburn, more like an Indian restaurant medium. The portions are huge so we had enough for lunch the next day. We'll have to come back and try out the Thai side of the menu. A nice addition to the Mountain View restaurant choices!


        2 Replies
        1. re: mdg

          I have been trying my "just make all dishes like they make it in Xland". I tried this at a place called Q2 in Hell's Kitchen in NYC and it worked great. We got dishes that were not only hot-hot but had serious depth and complexity. Some of the dishes weren't made hot, just based on the exact dish in question.

          Will go back to tommy's and try this strategy, it's working...

          1. re: bbulkow

            Ok, I have a better strategy now.

            I just ate at an Indonesian place in Amsterdam, and they had four levels of spice:
            0. Mild
            1. Spicy
            2. Hot
            3. With no restrictions on the chef
            [ In a moment of confusion, I ordered Spicy, and it had a hint of spice. ]

            Similarly, I was at a Thai restaurant in Los Angeles ( Night + Market ), and at the top of the menu was the explanation something like:
            "the chef makes all dishes according to the spice levels appropriate to the dish, which can be very hot. If you require less spice, please inform your server, and we can determine if modifications can be made to the dishes in question."

            I had a Larb that was, honestly, face-meltingly hot. It tasted, finally, naturally thai.

            Thus my new theory: "with no restrictions on the chef"

        2. Update. Tommy Thai has switched to a 1 to 10 scale for spicyness. 10 means lots of thai chilies/thai-ish level of spicyness (which isn't necessarily 'authentic' as discussed in this thread). For me, about an 8 is comfortable. I could eat 10 but needed a lot of rice and water.

          3 Replies
          1. re: goldangl95


            In the writing in 2012 upthread, the 1-10 system is discussed... what have they "switched to" ?

            1. re: bbulkow

              *shrug* this is the first visit where the waitress explained and enforced the 1 - 10 system with explanations. Usually we just go in and vaguely indicate we want it authentic and can take very spicy but this time she insisted on a 1-10 number for each dish and explained how the numbers work.

              I said 10 and for the first time, the food was a bit too spicy to be comfortable for me which has never happened before.

              1. re: goldangl95

                Ah, that's happened to me on previous visits.