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Thai Basil High

[whitespace] Thai Basil
Robert Scheer

Thai a Little Tenderness: Tan Manichanh, chef and owner of Capitola Village's Thai Basil, creates spicy, flavorful dishes like Tom Kah Kai (spicy chicken salad) and coconut soup with lemon grass and chicken.

From Capitola's tiniest kitchen, a miniature culinary gem nightly woks its way through some dreamy dishes

By Christina Waters

LIKE ALL FANS OF CAPITOLA'S infinitesimally tiny Thai Basil, Karen didn't need to be asked twice. Absolutely, yes, she would be happy to join me for dinner there. So last week, we took one of the four tables snugged into the popular village eatery and proceeded to eat our way through as much highly spiced deliciousness as was legal.

The potent, malt-driven Singha beer ($3) is the real way to go with the flagrantly spiced cooking Thai Basil does from a kitchen the size of a large-screen TV. And the menu is so user-friendly, it practically orders itself.

In addition to starters--the whole gamut, from spring rolls and dumplings to satays and larb--and those coconut-laced soups, Thai Basil offers a full spectrum of curries, braised vegetables and noodles, all available with your choice of fish, meats, poultry or just veg-style.

So once you know, for example, that you're in the mood for chicken or shrimp or pork, you can consult the listing of preparation styles and have your selection prepared with cashew nuts, chiles and carrots, with sweet basil, onion and mushrooms or with yellow curry sauce and potatoes. You get the idea. And every entrée is priced between $6.50 and $8.95--amazing bargains for food that is prepared to order and served steaming hot from the wok.

A blue ceramic bowl in the shape of a fan arrived stocked with plump steamed dumplings and a sweet/sour dipping sauce ($3.95). Frilly, tissue-thin rice paper tulips had been packed with a terrific filling of basil, ground shrimp, crab, garlic and a hint of pork, all moistly steamed into a smoothly textured pâté.

The wonderfully named Spicy Shrimp Yum ($7.95) was presented on another pretty ceramic dish, this one shaped like a giant fish. Large broiled prawns--richly laced with a sauce of lime, lemon grass and chile--had been tossed into a salad with slices of onion and crunchy cabbage. Both these dishes were so good that we could have ordered another round each and called it a meal.

We were amused by the enormous Fresh Veggie Spring Rolls ($2.95), which essentially amounted to a large helping of green salad and a wedge of tempeh wrapped inside transparent rice paper the size of two fists. We dipped these wrapped salads into a sweet chile sauce, as well as another warm peanut sauce. It was fun food, though a bit ephemeral, like eating soft green clouds.

Given the tininess of Thai Basil, it's made a reputation for itself as a popular takeout venue. While we finished up our appetizers, people came and went with orders of fragrant dishes packed for home consumption.

With impeccable timing--even though a large birthday party had practically taken over most of the rest of the room--our entrées came steaming to the table. At Karen's suggestion, we'd ordered a yellow curry, to which we added roast duck ($7.95). It smelled incredible, tinged a brilliant hue by turmeric and wickedly laced with hot chiles. Chunks of carrot, yellow squash, potato and onion added textural interest, and basil leaves made magic with the rich bits of roast duck.

We were mopping our brows, blowing our noses and draining our Singha glasses happily as we ate. Clearing the sinuses and re-tuning the taste buds is all part of the Thai-food-on-a-winter-night experience.

A second entrée--which Karen had ordered done with full spiciness--was extremely so. And irresistible. Spicy Mint Noodles ($8.95) lived up to its billing, offering fat, succulent pan-fried noodles and huge slabs of moist, fresh salmon, along with the exotic perfume of fresh mint and the unmistakable bite of chiles. Bits of crisp, sweet carrots helped cut some of the firepower--as did the voluptuous noodles. I'm not complaining about the heat--some like it hot, remember.

At Thai Basil, the heat is on--but it never comes on as a cheap trick. In this kitchen, spice is an ally of fresh, honest flavors.

Thai Basil
Address: 210 Monterey Ave., #3, Capitola
Phone: 479-8985
Hours: Daily from 11am to 9pm.
Chef: Tan Manichanh
Entrees: Inexpensive
Cuisine: **1/2 Freshly prepared, expertly seasoned Thai classics with a relaxed attitude
Service: **1/2 Swift service, helpful and friendly
Ambiance: **Fun, no-frills and amiably jammed into a small space
Overall: One of the most delicious reasons for dining out in Capitola, Thai Basil offers spicy and satisfying cooking.

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From the January 15-21, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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