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Bouquet of Delights

From 'Pug Tod' to the 'FBI,' Thai Orchid delights the palate

By Selene Latigo

In typical Santa Cruz fashion, our home is sliced and diced into several separate living spaces. With summer arriving and change on the horizon, it was high time for a house meeting. Since there is no better way to dive into a couple of hours of housing logistics than over a tableful of food, the six of us headed out to Thai Orchid on Mission Street.

Upon entering, we were struck by the visually enticing scene. Bright fish tanks adorn the colorfully lighted front room and the vaulted ceiling creates an expansive feel. We were seated and had a chance to review the large amount of specials and the reasonably priced menu before placing our drink order. Spying some wine bottles, Dave, Terry and Tim chose glasses of house wine, because there weren't any alcoholic selections posted anywhere. Dave regretted his choice, wishing he had known about the Thai beer we later saw delivered to someone. Of course, there were no regrets when it came to the large glasses of Thai iced tea that Peter and I ordered. This nectar-sweet orange beverage always scares me a little because the color is so artificial looking. Thankfully, our knowledgeable neighbor, Jana, who recently returned from a trip to Thailand, informed us that the coloring is, in fact, nonsynthetic and harmless.

We decided to order a broad range of items (which was a wise move due to the slow service). We started with the Pug Tod ($5.50), mixed vegetables deep-fried in coconut batter and served with a sweet and sour sauce. These arrived generously piled onto a plate, representing a wide selection of veggies: carrot, broccoli, eggplant, sweet potato and onion. I was expecting a lighter coating, almost like tempura, but they were thickly fried in crunchy golden batter, very good with the syrupy sauce.

We also ordered the Ka Nom Jeeb ($6.50) to start, a fresh contrast to the fried vegetables. These steamed wontons were filled with pork, mushroom, bamboo shoot and green onion, and accompanied by a tangy blackstrap molasses dipping sauce. Not only were they delicious and texturally appealing, they were also presented beautifully on the plate, little packages surrounded by tufts of shredded carrot, cabbage and Thai basil.

Next came the Som Tum ($6.50), a classic Thai salad made up of shredded green papaya, carrot, tomato, roasted peanuts and Thai Orchid's house dressing. The crispy textures and salty vinaigrette made this one of my favorites, especially paired with bits of the Thai basil garnish. Our informant, Jana, described the common nuances of this salad, saying that it is usually very spicy and often contains fresh garlic and either fish sauce or dried shrimp. This version was definitely mild, but had the unique savory tang that only fish sauce can add.

After a little wait we were presented with a large sizzling pot of the soup special, Tom Kha Artichoke ($12.95 for the large size). Our server quickly dished out this creamy coconut milk soup with prawn, lemon grass, cilantro, mint and artichoke heart. Layers of the fresh herbs were subtly surrounded by the buttery and sweet coconut milk, further enhanced by the tart lemon grass, woody galangal root and spicy ginger.

We could have ended at this point, perfectly satiated, but of course we had more coming. The vegetable Pad Thai ($6.95) arrived heaped on a large plate and sprinkled with chopped peanuts. Thin springy rice noodles were tossed with broccoli, zucchini, carrot, tofu and egg. Everything in this dish was fresh and well prepared, yet it needed a bit more sauce to combat the dryness.

Our final selection, the Red Pumpkin Curry special ($8.95 with a choice of chicken, pork, beef or prawns), competed for my favorite slot. This perfectly spiced curry had rich coconut milk and savory winter squash with slightly overdone pork and crispy green beans adding texture.

By now all house business was over and we were completely full. Regardless, there was no way we could pass up the "FBI." From the crispy-fried banana to the creamy coconut ice cream, this dessert has every essential element covered.

Meeting adjourned. Thankfully we had a little walk home and left Thai Orchid feeling full, happy, with a job well done.

Thai Orchid, 2238 Mission St., Santa Cruz; 831.425.2206.

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From the June 8-15, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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