Cafe Reviews


Here's a mystery for you culinary detectives. Why is Thai food in Los Angeles so superior to what we have here in the Valley? Why, oh why? On a relative scale, we're not that much farther from Bangkok than, say, Pasadena. So why the huge difference in quality and taste?

Yes, that's right. I'm admitting my bias right here in the first paragraph. Los Angeles has spoiled me for Thai food. I'm not even talking big-time L.A. Thai food. My sister lives in the foothills, in a pretty normal town, and right near her house are two little mom-and-pop Thai places that I would kill to have even one of in the Valley. I'm that desperate.

Oh, I try to keep an open mind. When someone tells me they've found a new Thai place they like, I'll visit it, even if it's out of the way. Under this cynical skin, I'm an optimist at heart. I mean, anything is worth a try when your alternative is driving six hours through the desert, right?

And believe me, the two Thai restaurants I visit this week are out there.
Bangkok House is located at 95th Avenue and Peoria in Peoria, just down the street from the white protective walls of Sun City. I learn, on the way home, that the quickest way to get there is on our new freeway system. I don't know about you, but I'm impressed with what a half-cent tax can accomplish.

The first thing I notice about Bangkok House are the signs posted on the door. "Rest rooms for customers only"--or something to that effect. An odd warning for a little restaurant nestled in what appears to be a low-volume strip mall. Were too many aged joggers trying to make unscheduled pit stops? Curious.

The second thing I notice is that there are more people in the lounge next door than in the restaurant. In fact, for the duration of our meal, we're the only ones in the dining room. Maybe on Tuesdays everyone orders take-out. (Bangkok House will deliver orders of $15 and up.) Maybe everyone's over at Empress of China or playing bridge. I don't know.

What I do know is, solitude translates into very good service. Our diminutive waitress is incredibly helpful. When Goat asks her what galangal is, she offers to bring a piece of this gingerlike root from the kitchen to show him. When we warn her we're going to order "a lot," she tells us, "No problem." Everything is homemade and freshly prepared. "You can microwave after one week and it still be good," she says.

The interior of Bangkok House is very plain. White walls are accented by an eclectic array of framed prints, paintings and photos. Carpet and tablecloths are maroon. If it weren't for the two cases filled with traditional Siamese statuary on either side of the register and portraits of the royal family, we could be in any kind of restaurant.

For appetizers we've ordered assorted satay and Thai egg rolls. Somehow I've never had Thai egg rolls. They arrive first, two for Goat and two for me. They strike me as a cross between Chinese egg rolls and Vietnamese spring rolls. The slender rolls are fresh from the fryer, hot as the dickens and delicately filled with cellophane noodle, cabbage, carrot and mushroom. A sweet-and-sour sauce, pink and gloppy, comes with them. It adds a nice flavor.

Bangkok House gives you a choice of three types of satay: pork, beef and chicken. "Chicken very good," says our waitress. We can't choose, so she promises to bring us an assortment of all three. What we get is four chicken and one beef. But that's okay. The bits of meat-on-a-stick are nicely grilled, tender and smeared with yellow coconut paste. We make good use of the saucers of peanut sauce and fresh cuke, Bermuda onion and chile. The raw veggies marinated lightly in vinegar are one of my favorite things in a Thai meal.

From the lounge, which we cannot see, come the sounds of billiard balls and TV sitcoms. "Are they laughing?" Goat wonders incredulously. Indeed, the sound of live human laughter joining the canned is audible. "What are they watching?" he asks. "M*A*S*H*?"

I understand that in Thailand a soup or soupy stew is served with the meal and eaten with rice. Most Thai restaurants in this country, including Bangkok House, have adopted Western conventions. The soup we order, tom kha kai, arrives after our appetizers and before our other dishes.

But is it ever good! Hot and sour, pungent with the distinctive flavors of lemon grass and kaffir lime leaves, the soup is sweetened with coconut milk and made earthy with the taste of the aforementioned galangal. To the kitchen's credit, the chicken meat in this soup is white and sans gristle. I get a fiery surprise when I chomp down on what I think is a green bean. Yes, I have just consumed a whole serrano chile. When the younger woman who brings us our food comes over, I joke about my mistake. She looks concerned. In minutes, our original waitress emerges from the kitchen. "You got to be careful," she says. "There are no green beans in that soup."

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Penelope Corcoran