It wasn’t so long ago that local restaurant choices were limited to just a handful of styles: American, French, Italian, Chinese, the occasional German place, and Mexican taquerias. Things really started changing in the 1970s with the advent of Japanese restaurants, then Indian, and then the related cuisines of Southeast Asia: most prominently Thai, Vietnamese and Laotian. In recent years, chef-owner Tony Ounpamornchai’s SEA Modern Thai in Petaluma was an immediate hit, followed by his SEA Thai Bistro in Montgomery Village.
Yet all the Thai restaurants in Sonoma County seemed to serve pretty much the same menu — chicken and beef satay, curries, pad Thai, and so forth.
In Thailand, noodle vendors are everywhere — on three-wheeled bicycle carts, in restaurants floating on Bangkok’s canals, in stalls along streets, in shops. Customers tell the vendors the kind of noodle they want — rice, cellophane noodles made from bean sprouts, or egg noodles.
Chef Ounpamornchai, who’s Thai and who travels there frequently, knows all about this, and so has brought the authentic tradition of Thai noodles to Sonoma County with his new place, SEA (for Southeast Asia) Noodle Bar in Santa Rosa’s Coddingtown Mall.
Once again, he has an instant hit on his hands, especially for lunches, where a noodle or rice bowl is just the right amount of food. It’s so much of a hit that he’s been working full-time there, just keeping up.
The interior is one deep room, dimly lit in its recesses, set with individual tables along the east wall, with an opening to an outdoor patio and a wine and beer bar on the west wall, and with long communal tables down the center.
A large frame with 98 ceramic bowls is the chief decoration. With all the hard surfaces, the room can get pretty noisy when it’s full of customers.
Beer goes well with Thai food, or you can order a glass of 2012 Chalk Hill Chardonnay for $10 or a 2012 Gundlach Bundschu Gewurztraminer for $9, among other by-the-glass choices. There’s a good list of wines by the bottle, most in the $30-$50 range, and a few more expensive bottles, like a 2009 Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon for $84. Corkage is $15.
Thai chefs are known for the beauty of their presentations. There’s not too much chef Ounpamornchai can do with a noodle or rice bowl, but he spruces up the appetizers nicely.
Five house-made Potstickers ($8 ***) lie prettily on a bed of crunchy, just-cooked yu choy, a popular southeast Asian vegetable related to broccoli. When the plant bolts — that is, sends up a flowering stalk — it’s harvested, chopped, and quickly sautéed. The potstickers themselves are filled with ground pork cheeks (what Italians call guanciale) and jicama. This is a superb appetizer that, like most of the dishes here, shows multi-faceted flavors.
The name of Crispy Duck Spring Rolls ($9 **) promises more than the rolls deliver flavor-wise, but not the Dungeness Crab Puffs ($9 ***), four bite-sized balls of sweet crab meat served with spicy bacon aioli and a house plum sauce.
Seven noodle soups include chicken, soft tofu, coconut-chicken, spicy beef, spicy lemongrass-prawn, duck, and lamb curry, at prices ranging from $11 to $15.
But who can resist the Drunken Man Noodle Bowl ($12 ***), made with succulent organic chicken, wide rice noodles, cherry tomatoes, basil, garlic, spicy red Thai peppers, yu choy, sweet bell peppers, and a splash of Johnny Walker scotch? Forget pad Thai and go for the drunken man.