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June 27-July 3, 2007

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Thai Temple Food

By Stett Holbrook

SEVERAL months ago in this column, I put out a call for help. I asked readers to steer me toward Thai restaurants that break from the same ol' pad thai and yellow curry. Where are the Thai restaurants that specialize in lesser-known regional dishes, I wanted to know. Where are the Thai restaurants that veer off the beaten track? For me, Silicon Valley Thai restaurants have settled into dull predictability and all seem to share the same menu. Based on my experiences, if you've been to one Silicon Valley Thai restaurant, you've been to them all. As I result, I've never reviewed a single Thai restaurant in my three years on the job here at Metro. Kinda sad, isn't it?

I did get a few suggestions that look promising. Jack Muranami talked up Dusita on El Camino Real in Santa Clara. Gerry Olsen recommended Thai Spice on Lundy Road in San Jose. And Hann So pointed me to Thai Lovers on Story Road in San Jose and Wat Buddhanusorn in Fremont, better known as the Thai temple. Who would have guessed that it would be a place of worship that renewed my faith in Thai food?

The Thai temple is in eastern Fremont near the antique lovers' town of Niles. The temple, with its winged eaves and dragon sculptures running along the stairs, stands in stark contrast to the sprawling suburbia around it. The lush landscaping and fountains give the place the feel of a tropical retreat. And for the South Bay's Thai community, it is.

Come on a Sunday and peek inside the incense-scented temple and you'll see serene-faced monks in flowing saffron-colored robes sitting in meditation while followers kneel and pray before huge, golden statues of the Buddha. Underneath the temple are two rooms where Thai language and Sunday school classes are held.

After church, worshippers need not travel far to eat. Behind the temple is a row of semipermanent food stalls where vendors prepare a variety of dishes for the reverent or the just plain hungry each Sunday. To sample this outdoor Thai restaurant, you buy a few tokens from the guys in the booth opposite the food stalls and then wander over to the vendors. Most dishes go for $5, so you can try a number of things for little money. On my visit, all of the vendors were women except for the guy who woks up the pad thai and the guy squinting through the smoke as he grilled chicken and beef.

My first stop was the green papaya lady. The salad is a mainstay of Thai restaurant menus, but here it's like tasting it anew because you get to watch her assemble it before your eyes. Using a giant mortar and pestle, the woman tossed in fish sauce, minced chile peppers, cabbage, green beans, lime juice and tiny pickled crabs no bigger than a quarter and then lightly pounded the mixture with the wooden pestle. When she was done she offered me a taste on a spoon to see if I wanted to adjust the heat level and other ingredients. But I had told her I wanted mine spicy and she nailed it the first time.

Grilled chicken is a classic accompaniment to the salad and conveniently that's what the neighboring stall sells. I ordered some and the woman hacked up a leg and breast with a cleaver. The papaya salad was great, less sweet and more complex than other versions I've had. The tangy, crunchy heat of the salad was the perfect match for the well-charred, thickly marinated chicken.

Also look for the seafood noodle soup. The vendor called it something like "tendufo," but I'm not sure I got that right. The soup is made from a dark red, sweetish, mildly spicy stock to which shrimp, fish balls, ground pork and fresh greens are added.

Maybe it was the setting that made the food taste so good. Children chased each other around the temple's parklike setting while their parents sat on tables under a leafy oak tree or under the tarps near the food stalls. Warbling Thai pop songs emanating from the vendor stalls created a lively, street carnival atmosphere. Monks with freshly shaved heads walked about and were met with reverent, clasped hand bows. Simple wooden signs with quotations of Buddhist thought are tacked onto trees around the temple grounds. One reads: "Be not attached to the beloved and never without the beloved."

I pondered that thought and the impermanence of life and then helped myself to another plate of food. This time it was a lively basil chicken and green beans bathed in a pale green curry sauce served over sticky rice. I washed it all down with a couple glasses of Thai iced tea and then some gummy but good rice-based desserts.

The Thai temple is a one-of-a-kind South Bay experience that made me a believer in Thai food once again. Thanks for the tip, Hann.

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