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The Thai That Binds

[whitespace] Sabieng Thai Cuisine
George Sakkestad

Thai One On: Tom and Phnawan Chaimungkla, owners of Mission Street's new Sabieng Thai, create traditional Thai fare, ornately served.

Westside Santa Cruz's new Sabieng Thai Cuisine offers an accessible journey to the East liberally scented with spices

By Christina Waters

IT WAS NICE to see just how full the Westside's newest ethnic eatery was last weekend as scores of inquiring gastronomes waited for seating at the attractive new Sabieng Thai Cuisine. Hoping that this high-profile location near the corner of Laurel and Mission streets would finally find its ideal tenant, we took a spacious window seat with our visitors from Vancouver, Canada, and scanned the huge menu.

The place felt comfortable. Intricately carved wooden screens divide the restaurant's cooking and dining areas, and gilded wall decorations reminded us of the country of culinary origin. All the hoped-for classics seemed to be here, from Tom Yum, the wonderfully named soup heady with lemongrass and galanga, to the likable pad Thai loaded with noodles, tofu, egg, onions and peanuts. I love the vibrant seasonings of these foods, loaded with pungent basil, plentiful garlic and often incomparably fiery chiles.

Umpteen deep-fried appetizers teased us, but finally we were ready to order enough dishes to share--the ideal way to sample lots of new flavors--and toasted multinational dining with tumblers of strong Singha beer ($3) and a very nice pinot noir by Kendall Jackson ($6.50). While the great Thai beer is usually my favorite partner for these flavor-forward foods, the red wine worked surprisingly well, especially with a subtle and complex green curry.

First came our order of chicken satay ($6.25), six skewers of nicely grilled chicken--no surprises, just tasty chicken--and a tiny salad of cucumbers, cabbage threads and a sweet vinegary dressing. Along with these pretty accompaniments came a peanut sauce that packed an after-burner of spiciness.

Next came a dish that proved to be a huge hit with our group and was a grand version of one of my favorite Thai creations called Yum Woon Sen ($6.95). Essentially this is a salad involving ground pork and prawns mixed with transparent bean-thread--"cellophane"--noodles all spiked with lime, cilantro, onion and some of those wickedly hot peppers for which Thai food is infamous. We were happily mopping our brows by the time this wonderful dish quickly disappeared.

Unfortunately, the sheer firepower of the bean-thread salad overwhelmed our first bites of a lovely green curry made with squares of fresh tofu sauced with coconut milk and sweet basil ($6.95). Once our tastebuds came back to this planet (mind you, I'm not complaining) we were able to detect the subtleties of bamboo shoots and eggplant in the well-made curry. It had its own modest spiciness but of an entirely different variety than the volcanic jolt of the salad.

An order of Peak Gai Krob ($6.95), fried chicken wings, proved undistinguished. The wings were meaty enough, but they arrived in a cloyingly generic sweet sauce, and the topping of crispy sweet basil was devoid of flavor. Crisp, yes. Tasty, no.

A generous portion of perfectly prepared Pla Rad Pik ($11.95) offered tender moist sole coated in a crisp batter jacket. Each bite burst with succulence, enhanced by a complex garlic chili sauce in which the basil was detectable. With these dishes we enjoyed rice served from a huge silver tureen, as well as tiny woven straw baskets of sticky rice that was drier than it absolutely had to be.

Desserts, when they finally arrived, were a mixed blessing. The fried bananas in a light cream sauce were delicious ($1.95). The Thai coconut ice cream wasn't creamy and was thin in the coconut flavor department ($1.25). My order of sticky rice with warm coconut cream sauce and mangos ($3.50) offered flawlessly ripe mangoes, excellent moist sticky rice but a mysteriously salty cream sauce. The effect was jarring, and I'm convinced the kitchen in its haste actually used salt when it intended sugar. That has certainly happened in my own kitchen.

Give Sabieng a try--and expect a leisurely experience if you go on a Saturday.

Sabieng Thai Cuisine
Address: 1218 Mission St., Santa Cruz
Phone: 425-1020
Hours: Open daily; lunch 11:30am-3pm; dinner 5pm-9:30pm (Fri-Sun till 10pm).
Ambiance: ** Attractive and neatly decorated dining room atmosphere
Service: * Uneven, and slow on bringing meals to closure
Cuisine: ** Some fragrant and fiery Thai classics
Overall: A welcome addition to the neighborhood.

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From the March 10-17, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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