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Some Like It Hot

Thai House specialties
Robert Scheer

Thai a Little Tenderness: Chef Preecha Piyarak, waitress Nantaporn Kachinthorn and manager Wanlop Kachinthorn display a batch of Thai House specialties.

Fearless flavor fanatics and gleeful global gourmets have a spicy field day at downtown Santa Cruz's sterling Thai House

By Christina Waters

I'VE ALWAYS SUSPECTED that the Santa Cruz area sports more than its fair share of worthy multicultural dining spots. And after a summer traveling all over the country, I've decided that I'm absolutely right. We do have a lot of culturally diverse ways of achieving oral gratification, and some of them are true gems--like Thai House Restaurant, once referred to as "the new Thai place where Swenson's ice cream palace used to be."

Now, though, it is referred to as many people's favorite Asian restaurant. My gastronomic sidekick Rosemary and I recently picked a blistering early evening to rekindle our crush on Thai House and, in so doing, re-acquainted ourselves with that wise adage about fighting fire with fire.

If there are still any Singha virgins left out there, we recommend a visit to Thai House as the perfect excuse to divest oneself of this needless status. The rich, malty and decidedly potent Thai brew ($2.75) is the perfect partner for all the complex curries, lemon grass and garlic stirfries, especially the bold basils and charismatic chiles of this ancient Asian culinary vocabulary. For example, Singha is perfect with an order of the house deep-fried spring rolls ($5.50). Definitely not lite cuisine, these extraordinarily crunchy rolls are packed with cloud ear mushrooms, crisp cabbage, some carrots and those wonderful transparent "cellophane" noodles. They are to be dipped into a thick sweet-and-sour sauce and consumed without a single thought about calories. My, these are good, we both murmured, getting sauce all over our faces and an iridescent sheen of peanut oil on our fingers.

Even better was an appetizer of electrifying firepower--the mighty spicy prawn salad ($6.50). We are among a growing subculture addicted to the way some spicy dishes work their pleasure/pain magic. Fat grilled prawns were tossed with lots of lime juice, cilantro and mint leaves--mint and cilantro, one of the greatest herb combos on the planet--and then (this is the crucial part) sliced serranos were added. This incendiary salad rested atop cool cucumbers and lettuce, all mounded into a lovely blue and white fish-shaped platter. Each bite proved an assault on the palate--yet the afterglow was so delicious, so complex, that we found ourselves taking another. And another. Wiping our brows, sipping some Singha, we actually tried to talk each other out of the last bite of this wicked dish.

On this particular evening, we opted for two of the evening's special entrees. One was something charmingly called "Three Buddies"--probably because the main ingredients were calamari, shrimp and asparagus in a chile basil sauce ($11.95). The other was a red-curry dish showcasing eggplant and chicken ($8.95). Both were terrific.

Helping ourselves to the basmati rice provided in a silver tureen--and left at the table for the duration of the meal--we decided that the calamari entree, literally sizzling on its cast-iron serving platter, might be a wee bit too hot to approach. So we helped ourselves to the red curry, in which creamy coconut milk formed the ravishing undercurrent for chile, basil and garlic, all saturating minced chicken and cubes of silken eggplant. Killer dish, we both agreed.

As soon as it was cool enough for human consumption, we sampled the fresh, tender calamari, lightly sautéed prawns and al dente asparagus, all exuding the intense licorice fragrance of Thai basil. Like all the dishes, this one was beautifully garnished. A rose carved from a celery heart perched at the end of a delicate carrot "leaf."

This was a sizzling encounter, loaded with complex spicing, firepower and fresh flavor contrasts. All in a night's menu at Thai House.

Thai House Restaurant

Address: 353 Soquel Avenue (at Ocean), Santa Cruz
Phone: 458-3546
Hours: 11am-9:30pm Mon.-Thu., 11am-10pm Fri.-Sun.
Cuisine: Thai specialties
Chef: Preecha Piyarak
Ambiance: Comfy booths, eclectic decor in cavernous interior
Service: Skilled
Price: Inexpensive-moderate
Overall: *** Excellent execution of world-class cuisine

****Great, ***Excellent, **Good, *Okay

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From the September 19-25, 1996 issue of Metro

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