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Bowled Over

Our writer's noodle quest ends at Santa Cruz's unassuming Thai Noodle House

By Steve Billings

On a trip to Southeast Asia in 2002, I almost drove my girlfriend mad with my insatiable appetite for noodle soups. When I had an itch, I slurped it. A lot. With chopsticks and a spoon, as many as three times a day if she'd let me, and all from different vendors, for we were on the move across Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. I was hooked and in search of a fix from whoever would sell it to me--and for roughly 60 cents a bowl, everybody sold it to me.

Then one day, late in our trip, after settling in to a comfortable guesthouse for a longish stint in Bangkok, I wandered out to see what fare our street had to offer. Down the block, 50 paces from my room, my muse revealed herself and behold, for she was a petite, sixtysomething Thai woman slowly ladling dark, richly perfumed broth over plump nests of steaming rice noodles. The noodles were freshly made (most likely that morning) and briefly dropped in hot water to enliven their silky texture and get them hot. Duck slices, thin, crisp-skinned and freshly roasted that morning, floated on the outer layer; lilies on a summer pond.

I went to her sidewalk stall every morning for the 10 days that I stayed, her smile increasing upon each return. Then one day, I went to the airport. It had ended. For months after returning home, I babbled to my friends not as much about what I had seen, but what I had eaten. As part of some bizarre dietary longing, I talked about noodles, how I craved them, missed them, how they are the perfect breakfast--nourishing, flavorful, not too heavy.

I actually contemplated buying an enormous stock pot and vowed to keep it simmering on the stove all day so I might provide for my needs. Jobless, I thought up a scheme to buy a mobile noodle cart and hit Pacific Avenue with the express intention of preaching the gospel of the noodle.

And all the while I thought, How was it possible, with so many Thai restaurants in Santa Cruz, that none seemed to offer what was extremely ubiquitous fare at sidewalk food carts and night markets across Thailand?

Then, something happened. A Thai restaurant opened its doors for business on Mission Street, directly across from Safeway, calling itself Thai Noodle House and promising "Traditional Thai Cuisine and Noodle Soup." Nirvana.

Then it closed.

Then recently, they reopened. Please, stop toying with me, I beg you. I only got to eat at the place once before it closed so quickly due to fire damage. The time I was there, I ordered a bowl of guaytiaw ped (noodle soup duck) and it felt very familiar. And though the style was markedly different from my Bangkok experience, this was familiar enough to make me think that this place could rekindle my memories and satiate any noodle urges that might arise.

What sets the Thai Noodle House apart from other Santa Cruz venues is the focus on guaytiaw nam, bowls of brothy noodle soup rooted in Chinese cuisine and varied by your choice of meats and noodles. All Thai restaurants offer soups, but they usually focus on the shared, hot pot approach offering the national favorites tom yum (hot and sour soup) and tom kha (coconut milk-based soup). Whereas these soups are served in small bowls and taken as one part of a larger shared Thai meal (which would also include some type of salad, a curry, a vegetable and some type of meat or fish), guaytiaw nam is a meal-sized portion intended to be eaten by one person at any time of day. And at $5 to $6 a bowl, it could just be one of the best lunch deals in town.

For me, the best part of this experience is the individual alchemy one may invoke in one's bowl. Always present on the table is a selection of condiments including sugar, dry ground chiles, chile paste, fish sauce and sometimes a chile-infused vinegar. This quiver of flavors can turn the noodle experience up to 11, allowing you to tailor the soup's flavor to your personal preference.

Start small. First taste the broth, see if it is balanced; if it provides what you need in terms of aromatics and flavor, then minimal, if any, additions are required. If you want to tinker a bit, add a few drops of fish sauce, a sprinkle of sugar, a bit of ground chile. Integrate them into the bowl with your chopsticks and spoon. Use these components to both deepen and balance the flavors of your bowl. With a little practice, you will soon discover that sweet/sour/spicy/aromatic matrix that makes Thai food so appealing.

Thai Noodle House is located at 2106A Mission St., Santa Cruz, and open from 11am to 10pm daily.

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From the August 4-11, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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