Some of Sonoma County's superstar chefs have made excursions to Southeast Asia for its famous and ubiquitous street food. A friend who joined a group led by chef John Ash said the group cancelled its reservation at a gourmet restaurant in favor of happily eating their way through the low-cost, high-flavor food stalls.
The good news is that we don't have to travel all the way to Bangkok to taste Thai street food. The menu at Baan Thai Restaurant in the Larkfield Center of north Santa Rosa has a number of items that you'd find in the food carts in the Thai capital. The only difference would be a lower level of spiciness tailored to American palates, and American prices that are higher than you'd find on the streets of Bangkok.
But the Shrimp Fresh Rolls ($8.95, 3-1/2 stars) would be the same, and the presentation just as beautiful. Thai cooks love to make artful displays of their food, and this plate of eight pieces of fresh roll is decorated with an upright stand of long, slender mushrooms accompanied by a leafy explosion of celery leaves. Rice noodle wrappers hold steamed shrimp, slithery and translucent noodles, sesame seeds, bits of carrot, cucumber and onion, all dressed in a garlic-lime sauce.
Satay is iconic Thai street food, and usually consists of beef, chicken or pork. Among Baan Thai's nightly specials of three appetizers and nine entrees was something different: Lamb Satay ($8.95, 3 stars). Each of four bamboo skewers was heavy with six bite-sized chunks of tender grilled lamb served with a peanut sauce that had been oddly pureed to a homogenous soup. A small cucumber, carrot and red onion salad came with the satay.
One dish you'll find for sure in the food stalls of Bangkok is deep-fried fish cakes. And you'll find them at Baan Thai, too, along with the spicy green papaya salad that's a staple throughout the countries of Southeast Asia. Stir-fried pork with spicy basil is on the menu in Larkfield and offered by Bangkok street vendors. And, of course, so is the stir-fried noodle dish called pad Thai.
Pad Thai, while certainly a delicious dish, is commonplace. I wanted to try something more adventurous and went back to the nightly specials for the Fish Rice Soup ($11.95, 2 stars). The server said the fish was Pacific sole. The delicate fish filet swam in a clear pho-like broth with scallions, basil and white rice. It was mildly spiced, not shriekingly hot the way some pho can be in Vietnamese restaurants.
The wine list is small and lists mostly indifferent wines, although the J pinot gris at $9 a glass and $31 a bottle is a standout. A choice of eight different beers at $4 a bottle may be the best way to go. The service at this small restaurant is accompanied by smiles and laughter.
A stir-fry of beef and veggies called Pad Himmapan ($9.95, 1-1/2 stars) was the only miss of the evening. The beef was tough and the onions, carrots and green bell peppers were overcooked. They came with a sweet sauce studded with cashews.
The success of a curry depends on the quality of its spices. Chicken Gang Panang ($10.95, 3 stars) hits the mark with a yellow curry slurry that tastes bright and fresh and is loaded with chicken, zucchini, green bell peppers, basil, kaffir lime leaves and coconut milk to dissolve the curry paste. It's mildly spicy, but curries are where you can get into some serious heat if you wish. Just ask that the kitchen make the curry extra spicy.
The surprise hit of the night was Ped Yang ($12.95, 3-1/2 stars). Broccoli, carrots, cabbage and zucchini are steamed until just tender, but not overcooked. A sweet black sauce gives the vegetables a rich burst of flavor. And then, best of all, slices of tender, juicy roast duck breast are laid on top. It looked inviting and tasted great.