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The search for quintessential Thai cuisine in the Mission
by Tim Surette on Jan 02, 2005
The Mission district has always been known as a melting pot of ethnic and cultural diversity. In a city with nearly one restaurant for every ten people, the Mission has its share of stellar ethnic specific restaurants. American has its Gordon's, French has its Ti Couz and Foreign Cinema, Sushi has its Tokyo GoGo, Vietnamese has its Slanted Door, and Italian has its Delfina, but no Thai restaurant has stepped up to claim dominance for its genre. Is there a "Thai-mond in the rough" hidden in the Mission? I decided to brave the streets of the Mission and dive into a world of curries, imperial rolls, and sticky rice to find out.
On the corner of 23rd St. and Valencia is the new J.J. Thai Bistro, occupying the storefront last held by Radio Valencia. J.J. Thai is a complex world of contradictions. The first thing noticed is the décor; the walls are a deep red, translucent blue bowls adorn the smooth tabletops, and a large disco ball hangs from the ceiling. From this information, J.J. Thai seems like the newest of a slew of trendy meeting places, a scene for the hipsters. Then come the stark realizations… the menus are poor xerox copies loosely bound in Manila folders, the speakers play "please shoot me now" easy listening music inducing aural vomiting, and the menu appears to have several Chinese dishes for a Thai restaurant. The food itself had hints of excellence, but never fully throws tastebuds into submission. Garee Gai (Yellow Chicken Curry), a favorite Thai dish, had a delicious underlying buttery taste, but lacked the zip and consistency. The appetizers were presented well, yet were only satisfactory. Clearly, J.J. Thai is a work in progress, but there is potential. A few minor tweaks here and there and the restaurant would be reputable.
The Yin to J.J. Thai's Yang is just a few blocks away at 18th and Mission. Yamo Thai Kitchen is fabulously undecorated, reserving all its energy for the food. The restaurant is literally eight barstools, a countertop, and a kitchen. The menu offers twenty options, half of those being vegetarian, of authentic Thai cuisine. Food is ready less than five minutes after you order it, and the taste is excellent. It's no wonder this small restaurant has so many returning customers. Most meat dishes have the option of pork, chicken, or beef and come loaded with vegetables. The wonderfully stern and direct chef Yamo may even give you a small education on Thai cuisine while you eat. Unless you want flack, you'd better eat your bamboo shoots as well. Feeling a bit squeamish about the décor? Take it to go.
If Yamo Thai Kitchen is like walking into someone's kitchen, Bangkok 16 on 16th and Guerrero is like walking into your friend's dining room. The gracious waitstaff and cross-dressing Halloween pictures give Bangkok 16 a very relaxed and inviting feel. The food is plentiful in portion and taste, and nearly every dish hits the mark. A large list of appetizers gets your meal off to a great start (try the imperial rolls) and the entrees finish you off with a slice of Thai food heaven. Bangkok 16 serves some of the best yellow chicken curry in town, and the beef with chili sauce is remarkable. Most dishes will only set you back seven or eight dollars, except for the seafood dishes, which hover around ten dollars.
Across the intersection is Malai Thai, which stands out in no particular category. Malai Thai is bigger than you would expect. Its one large dining room, traditionally decorated with Thai tapestries, is spacious and simple. The restaurant is never boisterous and the music is never loud, leaving a tranquil scene where having a conversation is not only plausible, but necessary. Many of the dishes aren't as thick in consistency as other restaurants, but for those who love their greens, plenty of vegetables adorn the meals. Like its neighbor across the intersection, Malai Thai offers large portions of food at low prices.
All of these restaurants share a few things in common: your business is always appreciated, flair has been substituted for affordability, and pretension is non-existent. There is no Holy Grail of Thai restaurants in the Mission, yet. This isn't a bad thing, though. Affordable, scrumptious Thai food can be readily attained with no wait, no hassle, and no yuppies.
by Tim Surette on Jan 02, 2005