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Osha Thai opens casual Petaluma spot, bringing Laotian BBQ

Sisters Chalida Oranratana and Lalita Souksamlane train staff to meticulously follow the family recipes perfected in their home country of Thailand more than 25 years ago.|

Osha Thai Barbecue

Where: 1390 N. McDowell Blvd., Unit A, Petaluma

When: 11:30 a.m. - 3 p.m. and 5 - 9 p.m. daily

Contact: 707-665-5748, oshathaibbq.com

Cuisine: Thai

Price: Moderate to expensive, entrees $14 - $39

Summary: The founders of the iconic Osha Thai in San Francisco have opened a casual outpost in Petaluma, specializing in rare-for-these- parts Laotian barbecue.

Chalida Oranratana took an unusual approach with her mini-empire of Bay Area Thai restaurants this past pandemic year.

While other restaurants were slowing down, she opened a new Osha Thai BBQ location in Petaluma and another in Oakland, then drew up plans to open one more in downtown Napa this spring, in the former Mango on Main space.

That brings her collection to a total of six eateries around the Bay Area, including spots in San Francisco’s Embarcadero, and on Geary Street and Leavenworth streets, plus spots in Pleasant Hill and in the Bann Resort in the Oak Knoll district of Napa Valley. The downtown Napa eatery in the former Mango on Main space will up the tally to seven.

“I figured I could do it, since the Petaluma place is small, so it didn’t really cost much,” Oranratana said of the 1,200-foot operation that used to be Thai Essence restaurant. “I kept the menu small and figured I could run it with just three or four staffers.”

Since opening the first Osha Thai in 1996, Oranratana has boiled down restaurant management to a science (the small, Bangkok-style noodle house on Geary Street still exists today, though it currently offers only takeout and delivery). She and her older sister, lead chef Lalita Souksamlane, supervise all the restaurants and train staff to meticulously follow the family recipes they perfected in their northeastern Thailand home country before coming to the Bay Area more than 25 years ago.

Some of the restaurants are fancy, like the Embarcadero spot that glitters with gold brocade wallpaper, velvet and rattan chairs, crystal chandeliers and gilded Buddhist temple sculptures. Some of the restaurants are casual, such as Oakland’s Osha Thai Express with its fast-food model and parklet seating. Meanwhile, the restaurant in Napa’s new Bann Resort anchors a luxury bed-and-breakfast designed in a stunning style celebrating the different providences of the ancient Kingdoms of Siam.

The Petaluma location tracks a middle path. Oranratana designed the contemporary interior herself, cloaking the boxy dining room in corrugated metal and wood walls, wood tables and round Melamine tables. You order at the counter and, for now, eat at the cozy parklet with picnic tables and umbrellas or take your meal to-go.

But all the restaurants capture what diners want: colorful southeast Asian cooking in familiar classics like curry chicken satay with peanut sauce ($10) and pad thai with lightly fried tofu ($17). It’s nice to see a few upscale dishes at even the casual spots, too, such as fried rice dressed with real crab claw and sweet body meat amid the deeply seasoned fluffy egg, peas, carrots, onions and garnish of cooling cucumber ($18).

Petaluma boasts plenty of Thai restaurants, yet Oranratana decided the city could use something new: Laotian barbecue, a popular street food in Thailand. She had long been eyeing the area, she said, after running her short-lived Chicken Nature fast food Asian eatery in northwest Santa Rosa two years ago. She found she “just liked it out here.”

To be clear, this barbecue isn’t the real deal, given that there is no wood-burning grill on-site. The tidy stacks of logs at the order counter are purely decorative. But the char-striped meats are tender and well-spiced — lift the lids on your takeout containers and you’ll be greeted with various heady aromas of garlic, basil, Thai curry powder, pepper, coriander, oyster and fish sauces, cilantro and vinegar-chile dipping sauces.

To find your favorite protein, go for the Special BBQ Combo of chicken, pork and beef with peanut-and-tomato-laced papaya salad and rice ($29, small), or add in two pork ribs for another $10. The lamb platter is another good choice, for earthy-sweet ribs that get extra flavor from the bones ($26). Whatever you get, sticky rice is the classic starch for this meal, but you can substitute steamed or fried versions if you like.

Osha does an excellent job with samosas, as well ($9). The mashed-potato-stuffed bundles sing with ample amounts of imported curry paste and arrive crisp and golden (eat them quickly; don’t let them go soggy). A side of vinegar-marinated cucumber salad adds pleasing tang.

I’d also make this a regular stop for the tom yum soup, a big bowl of the spicy, sour broth stocked with lots of fragrant lemongrass, galangal, Makrut lime leaf, tomatoes and white beech mushrooms ($8). Pumpkin curry pleases, too, in a silky mix of kabocha pumpkin and Thai basil red curry stocked with a choice of chicken, veggies, beef, pork, tofu or shrimp, all waiting to be spooned over rice ($17).

There’s just one dessert: mango sticky rice. It’s presented in a fancy restaurant style with thin-sliced fruit rings fanned around a mound of purple rice dotted with a purple-and-white edible kama orchid ($8).

It’s a safe bet the sisters aren’t done with their empire, either going solo or in partnership. Souksamlane opened Torsap Thai Kitchen in Walnut Creek on New Year’s Eve 2019, for example, and Oranratana hints she might be making a return to Santa Rosa.

Bring it on. “Osha” means “delicious” in the Thai language, and this food certainly is.

Carey Sweet is a Sebastopol-based food and restaurant writer. Read her restaurant reviews every other week in Sonoma Life. Contact her at carey@careysweet.com.

Osha Thai Barbecue

Where: 1390 N. McDowell Blvd., Unit A, Petaluma

When: 11:30 a.m. - 3 p.m. and 5 - 9 p.m. daily

Contact: 707-665-5748, oshathaibbq.com

Cuisine: Thai

Price: Moderate to expensive, entrees $14 - $39

Summary: The founders of the iconic Osha Thai in San Francisco have opened a casual outpost in Petaluma, specializing in rare-for-these- parts Laotian barbecue.

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