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[whitespace] JhanThong BanBua
Photograph by Michael Amsler

Culinary treasure: Hidden near the Gold Coin Motel, JhanThong BanBua is one of the North Bay's best-kept secrets.

Spice of Life

JhanThong BanBua: delicate, exotic Thai cuisine

By Paula Harris

DRIVING along Mendocino Avenue in Santa Rosa, it's easy to spot the sign for JhanThong BanBua, a Thai restaurant kinda halfway between the junior college and the courthouse. But maybe you've never visited. The place does look a little daunting from the outside, since the restaurant shares a parking lot with the beat-up-looking Gold Coin Motel (tonight an open door affords a view of a closet-sized room with painted brick walls and three people sprawled on a bed with a lot of beer bottles). But ignore the interesting local color and make your way to the restaurant; the aroma of spices should lead you.

Inside is a pastel and gold oasis where lovely women in long slim skirts bring platters of fragrant delights to your glass-topped table.

The waiting area (the restaurant also does a booming to-go business) has comfy seating and a pile of books, including many for children, which is a nice touch. The place is filled with kitschy artifacts and an abundance of gilt, yet there are interesting odds and ends. A lighted display cabinet showcases Thai currency, carvings, and masks. Atop it is a small altar with electric lights on either end. Customers and staff alike are mesmerized by a large illuminated aquarium in one corner, which is home to several oversized goldfish. The ambiance is comfortable in a harmonious and therapeutic way. It's a good place to chill out on a Friday night, although the restaurant can get busy.

But it's the food that keeps us coming back.

Begin with a selection from the dizzying array of unusual appetizers, such as deep-fried vegetarian balls (don't snicker) of yellow beans, cilantro, green onion, and yellow curry served with red chili cucumber sauce ($5); steamed tapioca stuffed with chicken, daikon, peanuts, and cilantro and served with salad leaves ($5); or a butt-kicking spicy green papaya salad with crushed peanuts and lime dressing ($6).

Both the deep-fried vegetarian spring rolls ($5) and the crispy curry rolls ($5) filled with chicken, potato, onion ,and yellow curry are terrific--slender, greaseless, and crisply addictive, with a light red chili-and-cucumber dipping sauce on the side.

But for a sheer punch of dazzling flavor, try the Meaing Lao ($6). It's sophistication on a lettuce leaf. Small squares of iceberg lettuce are piled with marinated turnip, onion, garlic, ginger, cilantro, roasted peanuts, bits of crispy rice cake, and tiny pieces of fresh lime. You roll up the leaf into a parcel that's packed with intense flavors.

The selection of curries (all with a choice of meat, seafood, or veggies) are consistently good. For instance, the Pad Gang Panang ($8.25), selected with butterfly shrimp and buttery scallops, comes with a thick sauce enriched with coconut milk and seasoned with red curry paste, sweet basil, and kaffir lime leaves. You can request the level of fire.

Other winners are the spicy eggplant with black bean sauce and sweet basil and carrots ($8.25), which is a beautiful, vibrant dish--all deep purple, green, and orange. So often an eggplant dish like this is swimming in the oil absorbed by the frying eggplant. Not so here: hefty chunks with a soft melt-in-the-mouth consistency in a greaseless piquant sauce. The tasty Pad Thai ($7.25) is multitextured with slippery noodles topped with crunchy bean sprouts and shredded cabbage, plus a pile of ground peanuts, a fresh lime wedge, and fresh cilantro for extra pizzazz.

Dessert choices are poor, with only ice cream ($3) or Kawniew Moon ($3.50) on offer. The latter is sweet sticky rice, best served with fresh mangoes in season.

All wines on the list range from $15 to $26 a bottle and are also available by the glass. A Domaine St. George chardonnay is a good bet for $15. Other beverages include Thai iced coffee and a selection of beers, including Thailand's Singha.

Rarely can you find a restaurant that not only is consistently good year after year, but actually gets better. But this has been our experience at JhangThong BanBua. So take your appetite, ignore the rundown motel, and settle back for a Thai feast.


JhanThong BanBua
Address: 2400 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa; 707/528-8048
Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner, 5 p.m. to around 10 p.m.; closed Sundays
Food: Sophisticated Thai cuisine
Service: Competent and friendly
Ambiance: Tranquil but can get crowded
Price: Inexpensive to moderate
Wine list: Reasonably priced selections, all offered by bottle or glass
Overall: 3 1/2 stars (out of 4)

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From the July 19-25, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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