If we can have pitched battles in the popular press over the most popular pizzeria, imagine the fodder for impassioned oratory over a much more nuanced category. Thai cuisine is nothing if not nuanced, as charismatic chef Chai Ngamsomjan would not be shy to suggest.
It’s not for nothing that he named his restaurant Thai Chili, and a bulletin board in the restaurant’s foyer flaunts the many masochists who have gone for some sort of fleeting fame in the domain of chiliphagy. But Chef Chai’s cuisine resides somewhere between the realm of Truck-Stop Thai (in which chili is often used as a blunt instrument) and Tony Thai (in which pretty presentations and costumed waitresses take on heightened importance).
Let’s start with the chilies. “I use real Thai chilies, not jalapeños,” boasted our boyish chef, and he promptly repaired to the kitchen to fetch a tiny but fiercely red pod to prove his point. With trepidation, we tasted. “The burn hits in about 10 seconds,” cautioned Chai — and so it did. He gets his chilies frozen from Thailand, and, as such, they aren’t as fiery as they would be fresh, but they did pack a punch both hot and fruity. We wanted more in almost every dish.
No chilies of any stripe would save the very odd fresh spring roll in its crêpe-like wrapper, however. The menu description admits to fried jalapeños in this case, but nowhere suggests the roll will be served warm with a gravy topping. Granted, the gravy is sweet-sour tamarind, and the Thai sausage in the roll is of more than ordinary interest. But the tasting team was unimpressed with the total package — yellow mustard included. “I wouldn’t order that again,” was the common conclusion. We would, however, order everything else again and again.
Though not signaled with a chili on the menu, the Somtum salad of shredded green papaya with tomatoes and green beans takes nicely to about an 8 on the heat scale of 10; it’s brightly flavored dressing of lime and fish sauce serves as a perfect foil for the ground dried shrimp or crab that are your add-in choices. At first surprised not to find the whole, dried crab, we were pleased with Chef Chai’s description of grinding them in a mortar; they can be challenging whole, but the flavor shines in pounded form. Be sure to eat your lettuce.
Chef Chai also displayed for us the green-skinned gourd used in his “pumpkin” curry — a curry made from scratch, not from a prepared paste. This was an irresistible dish, both creamy from coconut milk and sharp with spices and fresh chilies. So compelling was the firm-yet-yielding pumpkin that the added pork was almost superfluous. We ordered this at level 6 and would punch it up at least a notch.
In fact, we would likely order just about everything at 7 or 8. The spicy Thai lemongrass dish used ground grass, which gave it a more haunting herbal flavor than stir-frying with the whole stalks. There was no shortage of chicken on the platter, leading us to wish for a few more red bells in contrast, but by and large it was a keeper. Almost surprisingly, a beef dish, the pan-fried noodles in peanut sauce with broccoli, dutifully ordered for variety, turned out to have unexpected virtues. The beef had a smoky, grilled taste, the broad noodles, crisp on the bottom, sopped up the subtle peanut sauce just as they should, and the bright-green broccoli was both visually and texturally terrific.
Another dutiful dish, the Phad Makeur Tofu, ordered as a vegetarian option, was more subtle in its medley of tastes and textures. The black-bean sauce was much more low-key than it might be in a similar Chinese dish, the dominant eggplant was perfectly cooked, and its retinue of accompanying ingredients worked in total harmony — all enlivened by more fresh chilies. Nothing dutiful about it at all, in other words.
Although he does make his own coconut ice cream, Chef Chai’s dessert list isn’t unique in the annals of local Thai restaurants — with one exception, a crêpe topped with nothing more than a sugary butter sauce. Or so it seemed. After all the swings of taste and texture we’d experienced, simplicity was just the ticket. •
4303 Thousand Oaks Dr.
A well-tempered middle ground between truck-stop and upscale Thai with its lush, house-made curries. Bathrooms not handicap accessible.
Somtum salad and pumpkin curry
11am-3pm & 5-9pm Tue-Thu; 11am-3pm & 5-9:30pm Fri; noon-9:30pm Sat; noon-9pm Sun