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Photograph by Paul Myers

Heart, Soul and Soup: At Lampang, you can scoop up the ambience with a spoon.

Bridge Over the Dinner Thai

Smack dab in San Jose, a homey but gourmet world of pad Thai and delicious curries awaits at Lampang

By Joseph Izzo Jr.

THE neighborhood around Eighth and William streets slowly dissolved as we stepped inside Lampang. When the door closed behind us, time and space seemed altered. For my sister-in-law, who once worked as a nurse in a refugee camp in Southeast Asia, the displacement was especially vivid. "We ate a lot of pad Thai in places like this near the Thai-Cambodian border," she recalled.

It was a warm night, and the blades of the ceiling fans rotated slow and lazy. I contemplated their hypnotic rhythm as I glanced around the small, boxy room with the plastic plants and the hospital-clean red linoleum floor. The travel posters on the walls mysteriously came to life in the spicy aromas floating in from the small kitchen.

I knew immediately that I had entered one of those mythical finds that restaurant critics dream about in their hungry sleep, a place with heart and soul, and a kitchen pumping hot with gastronomic desire. I got wind of Lampang from a friend of a friend, who works at Adobe and loves the green papaya salad ($6.50), which we requested immediately. Green papaya possesses curative properties. This magical salad isn't on the menu, but Tina, the chef, "will fix it special for you, and anything you want," said her affable partner, Harry. The salad of shredded green papaya arrived quickly to our table doused lightly in a sweet and tangy Thai dressing speckled red with pepper.

Dishes are spicy and forceful at Lampang, but unlike so many other Thai restaurants, the peppers are not applied so as to cauterize the taste buds or initiate gastrointestinal meltdown. The food we tasted here had a wholesome, country effect that warmed us like family vittles.

With our salad we had chicken satay (5.95) brushed with herbs and garlic and served on wooden skewers with cucumber salad and a rich peanut sauce. Shortly thereafter came another salad, this one a stunning assemblage of large prawns ($7.50) tossed with roasted coconut meat, mint leaves, cashews and roasted chiles in a piquant lime vinaigrette that rang in my head with the force of bells.

With Harry, we discussed the differences between red and green curries, both popular in Thai cooking. Though they are essentially the same--both prepared with coconut milk and similar vegetables--the red delivers more fire to the palate. We opted for the green ($6.95), served with nuggets of beef in a bowl filled with a lush sauce based on coconut milk that perfumed the table with its bouquet. This one we put over rice and ate heartily with big spoons.

A bountiful vegetarian pad Thai ($6.50) came straight from the pan, steaming and fragrant and delicious. We squeezed fresh lime over the top, then tossed together the tender rice stick noodles with the crunchy bean sprouts, green onions and ground peanuts until all the ingredients glistened with juices. I became very covetous about this dish and kept going back for more, until only bits of peanuts remained. Pad Thai partnered with a salad makes a reasonably priced meal for two.

On Harry's recommendation, we sampled Lampang Special Seafood ($9.95). I had no complaint with the wonderful flavors delivered to the tongue on wings of sweet basil. When it came to the ingredients, however, there was just too much going on. Prawns, scallops, calamari, catfish mushrooms, onions and bell peppers staged a fierce competition in this ocean stew. My guests, on the other hand, found no problems with this dish.

By the time we left Lampang and re-entered San Jose time and space, we had already begun to reminisce about our journey, delighted by its charming segues along the Thai border. I could still taste mint and coconut. The ague that plagued me earlier that day had been chased like bad news from my body. There in its place sparkled an attitude of hope and optimism. Good Thai food can do that.

Address: 346 E. William St., San Jose
Phone: 408.286.5807
Hours: Lunch 11:30am-3:30pm daily; dinner 5-10pm daily
Price Range: $5.75-$11
Cuisine: Country Thai

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From the October 3-9, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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