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  • The Anonymous Hungry Hippopotamus

Thai Me Up

I love Thai food! Some of my earliest and fondest memories are of eating pad kra poa with my mom, aunt, uncle and cousins at a neighborhood restaurant in Placentia, California or devouring the angel wings at Thai Nakorn in Stanton, California with my dad. I find Thai food distinct in its ability to balance spicy, herbaceous, sweet, creamy, bitter and sour flavors. It wakes up my taste buds in such a unique way.

Below are some restaurants that offer a departure from the more common, Americanized, Thai dishes I have found at most Thai restaurants. The restaurants featured in this post, focus on cuisine from the northern part of Thailand which I found intriguing and absolutely delicious. While I love all the iterations of noodles, fried rice and coconut curries that I have eaten over the years, I am glad I ventured out to discover these new entrees.

Lotus of Siam

Lotus of Siam is located off the strip in Las Vegas, Nevada. It was been recognized as one of the best Thai restaurants in the nation by everyone from Saveur to The Food Network and Anthony Bourdain to Padma Lakshmi. At one point, Gourmet magazine called Lotus of Siam the, “single best Thai restaurant in North America.”

Chef Saipin Chutima and her family took over this restaurant in 1999 and the family has been operating it ever since. Since then, Chef Chutima has won the James Beard award for best "Southwest Regional Chef" and her husband Bill, has won the Wine Spectator award for his wine program.

There are a plethora of Northern Thai entrees to choose from and about 150 dining options when you include the regular menu. I wasn't sure what to order at first but the sign above, in conjunction with the server's recommendation, convinced me that duck (one of their specialties) was the way to go.

Khao Soi

Egg noodles in a curry base with a touch of coconut cream, topped with crispy duck

The depth of flavor in this dish was remarkable. The richness of the duck, bordered by crispy skin, sitting atop egg noodles that are swimming in a Burmese-style coconut broth, provided layers of unending flavors. I cannot neglect to mention that there were also fried noodles sitting triumphantly at the very top of the dish waiting to be broken up and mixed into the soup. They functioned much like croutons but so, so, so much better.

Red onions, lime and mustard greens

The chef recommended adding these condiments to the dish, which only elevated what was already one of the most robust dishes I have experienced.

I agree with Food and Wine magazine which characterized this dish as "essential."

Chiang Rai

Chiang Rai is located on a busy street in Long Beach, California. If you aren't looking for it though, you will probably miss it. On the outside, all you will see is a plain looking brick facade and the words, "Thai Street Food" in unexciting font.

The inside of the restaurant however, is an entirely different story. Upon entering, you are greeted by vibrant color both overhead and all around, from the upside down umbrellas hanging from the ceiling, to the neon signs on the walls.

Roti with Midnight Chicken

Northern Thai style fried chicken wings with yellow curry and roti

Chiang Rai is another restaurant that specializes in the less commonly seen Northern Thai cuisine. As such, I decided to order from the northern speciality portion of the menu.

The chicken wings were well-seasoned and perfectly fried so the inside was moist without being oily, while the outside remained crispy. The roti was warm and flaky which was the perfect consistency for sopping up the sweet and salty curry.

Thai Avenue

Thai Avenue is a small restaurant located inside a busy strip mall in Garden Grove, California. They are most famously known for their pad thai but they also have some lesser known items on the menu that they cook exceptionally well.

My first observation upon ordering is that they did not ask some form of the question that is asked in all Thai restaurants which is, "what level of spice are you comfortable with?" Instead, they took my order and spiced the dishes according to the level of heat that would be used when serving them in Thailand. (Note: if you prefer to control your level of spice, they will happily accommodate you.)

Tom Yum Soup

I have ordered Tom Yum soup more times that I can count and therefore do not consider it a particularly adventurous choice. The dish came so highly recommended however that I decided to give it a try.

This tom yum soup was indeed different. The flavors of lemongrass seemed somehow amplified. There were also pieces of chopped, bird's eye chili floating about that surprised my unsuspecting palate with a serious kick of heat. This soup comes with your choice of protein but the shrimp version is their specialty and I was immediately able to see why. The shrimp was sweet (which mellowed the heat in the soup), succulent and there were generous amounts of it.

Thai Sausage Fried Rice

I have had various kinds of protein in my Thai fried rice but this was my first experience with Thai sausage which is another speciality item at Thai Avenue. This sausage, called "sai krok issan," is a dish from the northeast part of Thailand.

Sai krok issan is made by mixing ground pork, rice and seasoning (most commonly garlic and salt) and letting the mixture ferment for a few days. The result is a tangy or somewhat sour sausage. The fried rice, egg, onion and cilantro countered the tanginess of the sausage well, creating a very well-balanced dish incorporating flavors I hadn't experienced together before.

Bird and Buffalo

Bird and Buffalo is located in the Temescal District of Oakland, California. Like Thai Avenue, this restaurant also features northeastern, Thai specialties. Bird and Buffalo focuses on what they refer to as, "Thai soul food" or dishes that you would find in the Thai countryside. The owner, Todd Sirimongkolvit, also started other, more formal, Bay Area Thai restaurants including Soi4, also located in Oakland, and Basil Thai and Basil Canteen in San Francisco.

Gai Gra Prow and Mussamun Neur

When you visit, I recommend ordering the "Thad P-Sed" (mix and match) so you can sample multiple dishes on the menu. This option, only available during lunch, comes with a crispy egg roll, steamed rice, a fried egg, garlic green beans and two entree selections. The portion size was large enough to share or take home for a second (and in my case, third) meal.

For my entrees, I chose the gai gra prow (spicy minced chicken with thai basil) and the mussamun neur (red curry beef stew with peanuts). The chicken was very flavorful and the beef was fork tender.

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