Chatting up one of the locals in the complex, the subject of food came up. I mentioned the Thai place on the corner and asked him if it was any good. He said that it wasn’t. Since this was the same guy that told me that “burrito” translated to “rolled up” and “pico de gallo” was Spanish for “fresh salsa,” I decided to go try it out anyway.
The place was called Thai E-San and I was alarmed when I first went in. The dining room was empty save for us and there were few cars in the parking lot. To be fair, Vess doesn’t get home from school until 3 PM and most people are back to work by then. After admiring all of the ornate decor lining the walls, we were quickly seated by the friendly, greying chef at a massive, marble-finished, 6 foot diameter round table dimly lit by colored recessed lighting. I scooted my chair next to Vess so I wouldn’t have to yell to Vess in an empty restaurant. We were brought our menus for perusal.
A lot of the things on the expansive menu I didn’t recognize but I did note that Engrish was involved, which is always a good sign. After flipping pages a few times and a little help from a great waiter, I settled on a classic: Thai red curry with roasted duck – a coconut milk curry with bamboo shoots, green beans, Thai eggplant and Thai herbs. Vess ordered the Pad See Yew with pork – Stir-fried fresh rice noodles with broccoli, bean sprouts and egg. Our orders away, I took in the scenery prepared for a wait. I had read that the chef insisted on cooking all of the meals by himself and that some orders could take a while. It felt like we had our own private chef! In the middle of our table was a little wire basket with four condiment jars. Curiosity getting the better of me, I checked their contents.
One jar I recognized as ground chili flake, the second as chili paste and the third as pickled jalapenos. It was the fourth that had me perplexed. It looked like some sort of scallions floating in a green pickling liquid. I decided to dip my spoon in for a taste.
“Hmm, it’s very salty.” I observed out loud. “This would be really good on rice.”
I felt a little heat in the back of my throat.
“Oooh! It’s got a little heat to it, too!” I informed Vess.
After about 10 seconds, the heat intensified. Something was wrong.
“Oh shit. I made a mistake!”
What I had thought to be scallions were, instead, Thai chilis. I gulped down my water to no effect. After a while my eyes stopped watering. I knew I would be feeling that ill-conceived idea the next day. Having barely recovered, our food arrived with hardly any wait at all.
The aromas were amazing. I had eaten curries before, but this was something special. Vess tried her homemade rice noodles and was in love. I readied my fork and spoon and went in for the kill, burning my tongue several times in the process.
There was a wonderful combination of flavors going on. The coconut milk added sweet, the spices added sour and the fried Thai basil leaves added that bitter licorice flavor that is so characteristic. I wasn’t really crazy about the raw bell peppers on top, but I know Thai cuisine often has contrasting textures to go along with the contrasting flavors. The Thai eggplant reminded me a lot of zucchini (called Italian squash out here) which I love. The bamboo shoots and carrots were tender and sweet.
Finally I found one of the many pieces of roasted duck. It was perfectly cooked and almost melted in my mouth. Most of the duck I have had in the past was greasy and gamey. This was neither. It tasted like the finest roasted chicken you could ever imagine. It was sweet but mild with a little crispy skin on the outside. It was easily the best duck I had ever eaten. this guy knew what he was doing.
The owner came by to see if everything was to our liking. I nodded fervently with full cheeks. She commented on my odd eating style, me (as usual) being unaware I was doing anything strange.
“I never see someone eat like that.” her forehead crinkled. “You have the rice and curry separate. Is it not too hot?”
“What do you mean?” I questioned, our two accents barely understandable to each other.
“You mix the rice in to kill the heat.” she responded.
“I didn’t want to dull the good flavor!” I said as I started to mix in the rice, suddenly ashamed of my uninformed ways.
After a while I finally got to the bottom of my bowl. I knew it was bad manners in Thailand to not completely finish your meal, and I didn’t want to insult the chef with any more faux pas. Upon leaving, I complimented the chef on his preparation of the perfect duck. His (I assume) wife informed me that the duck had been bought fresh just hours before, probably accounting for its good taste. With full bellies, Vess and I started the walk home. It would be yet another night were dinner would be postponed until the next day.
Some places you can walk into and suddenly get a feeling for what is in store. The smiling faces and personable atmosphere can make a meal just as memorable as the food. Service was great and the food was wonderful. When a restaurant can do all of these things, it’s something special.