3761 Sixth Avenue, Hillcrest
906 Market Street, East Village
If you like Thai food and you haven't been to Lotus Thai lately, you may be missing a treat. The restaurant has come a long way since those "Grand Opening" banners went up six years ago. Back then, it offered some Thai barbecue and a few interesting specialties, but mainly a standard assortment of dishes executed with surprisingly bland flavors. I was puzzled that the restaurant had succeeded so well that, last year, its owners opened a second location downtown. But when I looked at the current menus, I saw impressive changes. The food is not just a "taste of Thai" now -- it's actually Thai.
The central section of both menus has San Diego's "regular" Thai restaurant dishes -- finger-foods, salads, soups, stir-fries, curries, noodles, and fried rice. Flip the menu over, though, and you discover the chefs' specialties -- 13 of them downtown, 16 at Hillcrest -- with only 3 dishes overlapping. Some of the specialties (such as "crying tiger") are fairly common at local Thai restaurants, but others are personal spinoffs of traditional dishes that you won't find cooked the same way elsewhere.
Thai cuisine is highly regionalized (except in Bangkok, where all the flavors collide). As it turns out, both of Lotus's chefs are from northwestern Thailand, and there's something in the cooking that hints at their origin -- a zestiness, a love of strong citruses and fresh herbs that speaks of the Ping River and the hills of Chiang Mai.
We first sampled the food at original Hillcrest location, where a golden Buddha welcomes you into a serene room with a fountain, flooring of old bricks, and wood wainscoting topped by mirrors. Flanking the door (should you have to wait for a table) are a pair of couches with colorful embroidered Thai fabric bolsters. Small booths line both side walls, with small tables in the center -- once you order, your table is set with small, square plates, sized for appetizers but not changed when your entrées arrive. This provides extra space for the huge serving platters -- entrée portions are more than generous, sized for sharing and doggy-bagging.
We started with a chef's specialty, Lotus mee krob. This traditional wedding dish is made of crispy deep-fried rice noodles dressed with sweet tamarind sauce, garnished as elaborately (or not) as the cook pleases. Here, the toppings are simple, consisting of a few grilled shrimp, a handful of raw bean sprouts, and delicious tiles of deep-fried tofu that have soaked up the tamarind sauce, plus minced scallions and seasonings. It isn't the best version I've tasted, but it does embody an authentic Thai sensibility -- it's that fresh crunch of the sprouts, of the noodles, even of the surface of the tofu.
A "corn latke" appetizer comes from the Malay cuisine of Thailand's southern peninsula. Golden-fried tempura-coated pancakes are filled with a sweet, glutinous mixture of corn kernels, red curry paste, and lemongrass, for a citric edge. It's both novel and filling.
Another Hillcrest specialty is tango mango, a twist on som tum (green papaya salad), a popular dish from Esarn (a.k.a. Issam), the province at Thailand's northeastern corner. A few months ago, our friend Tuy, an Esarnese living in Phuket, made us a lunch of dishes from her home region, assembling her som tum the night before so the ingredients could soak together and share flavors. It was fabulous. Lotus's tango mango substitutes green mango shreds for the papaya, garnishes them with poached shrimp (rather than Tuy's dried shrimp), red onions, and cashews in a lime vinaigrette. It's very good, but after a night in the fridge, so much better. So think doggie bag on this one, for a luscious day-after lunch.
Tuy also made larb, another specialty of Esarn and neighboring Laos -- a highly seasoned minced-meat mixture served with lettuce and fresh herbs for roll-ups. It's nearly always made with ground or minced beef, sometimes served raw like Asian beef tartare but usually stir-fried. For some reason, most San Diego Thai restaurants have switched to ground chicken breast, and so have both locations of Lotus. Although the seasoning here is full-bodied, the texture comes off like poultry sawdust. I asked the Hillcrest restaurant manager, "Mike," himself from central Thailand, the reason for the substitution. He sounded bewildered, too, finally speculating, "Some Americans don't eat beef?" Obviously, the dietary dictates of the food police have manifested themselves in mysterious ways: A nation that feeds its kids Whoppers shuns ground beef in Thai restaurants? If fat and cholesterol are such terrors, it's easy enough to sauté extra-lean ground beef (which costs about the same as chicken breast) and rinse off the fat in a sieve before seasoning it. That would be healthy larb worth eating, 'cause the chicken version is dead meat.
Okay, off the soapbox and onto the entrées: "crying tiger" -- a form of beef nobody fears -- is a smash hit at both locales. You get long, thin slices of perfectly charbroiled, fork-tender Prime-grade top sirloin with a nippy sauce to spoon over, served atop greenery. It arrived cooked precisely to our order of "rare and spicy," with undertones of woodfire and citrus. It's up there with the best steaks in town -- only this steak is sliced and spiced. (BTW, the leftovers make great Stroganoff.)
Curries from the regular menu come with your choice of protein, a list that includes "mock meat" for vegans. Our Panang curry with pork -- a creamy, coral-colored sauce based on coconut milk -- arrived at a near-perfect spice level of about 6 on a scale of 10, without our even having to specify! Lotus's chefs evidently assume that people who eat at Thai restaurants understand that some dishes should be spicy -- a refreshing change from the norm. (At most local restaurants, asking for a 7 usually gets you a 3.) Lemongrass and Kaffir lime leaves subtly underline the heat with their green-citrus perfume in this complex blend of flavors.
Crispy honey duck, a Hillcrest specialty, features roast duck with a honey glaze served over baby spinach. It's from the Royal Thai genre of dishes enjoyed at the palace in Bangkok. The current long-reigning monarch is so benevolent that for years the palace has "leaked" its special recipes; students of the Royal Thai Culinary Academy are trained on them and go on to cook them at restaurants where regular people and foreign tourists can enjoy the dishes. But in America, only restaurants that do a lot of duck business serve freshly roasted honey duck. When the menu calls it "Princess Duck" and warns of a 40-minute wait, that's a place where you should order it. Here, the duck is reheated; both the breast slices and the whole leg were very dried out.
Lotus makes a number of variations on fried rice at both locations. "Drunken fried rice," a spinoff of drunken noodles, has a bite that hits around a 5 on the heat scale, flecked with hot chili pepper dots, plus red pepper, carrot shreds, scallions, Thai basil leaf, a few plump shrimp, and slices of anemic tomato. I never encountered a ripe tomato in Thailand -- Thais actually prefer them unripe for cooking because they stay firm and don't mush out (like weird farang spaghetti sauce, say). The next night, downtown, we tried the Lotus fried rice, which was zesty but not hot, featuring the full veggie riot, plus pork, minus the chilies.
The downtown restaurant is larger, prettier, and more comfortable than Hillcrest, filled with craft objects and art especially imported from Thailand. Center stage is an impressive bust of Buddha, and behind that, setting off the open kitchen, hangs a giant wooden "wagon wheel" -- they're used in Thailand's northern provinces to grind the special sticky rice. Another eye-catcher is a huge pounded copper mask of Buddha in semi-profile. Tall wooden chairs are perfect for hanging your coat or jacket from the back. The tables, coated in shiny black, with a lotus design in the center, are larger than at Hillcrest, with plenty of space between them. Plates are full-size here as well.
Lynne and her mom Mary Ellen were along, and we began with the signature rambutan cosmopolitan, made with shoju, Asian rice liquor. "This is fabulous!" Lynne exclaimed at first sip of the elixir. "I can imagine myself drinking these all day..." "Oh no, you couldn't, dear," said her mom, "but it is delicious." The liquor seemed less harshly alcoholic than vodka, the cranberry juice was subtly applied -- just enough to sweeten, not to swamp the flavors -- and soaking in the middle of each glass, exuding its delicate flavor, was a whole (canned) rambutan, an exquisite fruit from southeast Asia. (Raw and unpeeled, it looks like a little red hedgehog or sea urchin.)
It was here that we tested the Lotus platter appetizer sampler. Sadly, it's neither worth ordering nor the ink to describe it -- a standard array that includes a substandard version of the usual curried flower rolls (kra thong ton) here filled with bland chicken sawdust punctuated by a few peas 'n' carrots. A chef's specialty appetizer called Daisy Duck proved disappointing, too -- duck meat and minty greens rolled inside a cold, thick flour tortilla, a needless replay of the "world wraps" of the '90s. I think it'd be better with a rice-flour wrapper.
Tom kha goon, Thailand's answer to shrimp bisque, is rich with the flavors of galanga (a fragrant root similar to ginger), Kaffir lime leaves, lime juice, and lemongrass, infusing the coconut milk broth afloat with mushrooms, unripe tomato (see above), and shrimp. Lotus's version is watery (and shy on shrimps) but so rich in tropical flavors that it's a pleasure to sip.
The outstanding chef's specialty downtown is butterfly shrimp on golden nest, an adaptation of a Chiang Mai dish that features a crunchy deep-fried egg noodle basket holding large shrimp, red and green bell pepper, and bamboo shoots in a rich, warming, citrus-spiked red coconut-milk curry. Again, it hit at a 6 on the scale of 10 without our pleading for "hot, please." Mary Ellen, from small-town Michigan, was initially a bit taken aback by the burn, but then she got into it: As a good cook herself, she recognized that this was the right spiciness for the dish.
Bangkok beef salad, an overlapping chef's specialty at both locations, is a lively salad of shredded sautéed beef (the same good meat as the crying tiger), rubbed with salt and Thai chili peppers, drenched in a lime vinaigrette with roasted rice powder, green and red onions, cukes, and tomatoes. Lynne thought it was the cat's meow.
Emerald scallops and fish in pesto-lime sauce, both from the specialties list, suffered to varying degrees from the quality of their seafood. As was true when I ate at Lotus five years ago, the scallops are from warm seas off Southeast Asia, and they're soft and tender but nearly tasteless. Here, they're surrounded with a thin but tasty green curry sauce, punctuated by broccoli and voluptuous chunks of Asian eggplant. As for the fish in pesto-lime, it was perfectly cooked to translucent and topped with an exquisite Thai basil-citrus sauce -- but the farmed freshwater striped bass (the perennial "fish of the day") tasted old and terribly fishy. The downtown location is still waiting for the surrounding condos to fill up, when it should bring in enough customers to buy fish several times a week, rather than taking the fishmonger's leavings. If the owners want this location to last long enough for E-Ville to fill, they should invest some cash in fresher fish now.
A few small annoyances: Your place-setting is Thai-style, just a spoon and a fork -- but in Thailand, you rarely encounter food pieces large enough to need further cutting. Facing dishes like crispy honey duck, and even crying tiger, I wished that Lotus would hand out knives all around -- or cut the meat up in the kitchen. Currently, you get one flimsy knife on the serving platter and somebody in your group has to do the carving honors with it. Servers downtown are beautiful Thai women; in Hillcrest, they're mainly beautiful Thai men, and the occasional Anglo. Service can be a bit spotty, especially downtown, where less English is spoken -- there, they didn't ask if we wanted dessert, just handed us the bill.
Thais aren't big on dessert anyway. Lotus serves the usual Thai-American sweets: There's the Thai breakfast treat of sticky rice topped with chopped peanuts and sliced fresh mangoes -- Mexican mangoes, alas, which are pale and sour compared to Southeast Asia's sweet ones. The rice is lush anyway. Then there are banana quarters deep-fried in wonton wrappers with your optional choice of house-made ice cream flavors, including coconut, green tea, and mango, striped with sugar syrup. Nice, but I'd rather pick up a bagful of fresh rambutans, mongkhuts (mangosteens), or dragon-eyes (longans) at the produce stand on the way home -- whoops, I'm not in Chiang Mai now. The most flattering thing I can say about Lotus Thai is that, at its best, it almost makes me feel as if I am.
ABOUT LOTUS THAI
The chefs at Lotus speak very little English, and I can just about manage "hello" in Thai; meanwhile, the partners who own the restaurant weren't available by my deadline, so I spoke with Somnuk Jaroennetsawang, a.k.a. "Mike," the manager of the Hillcrest location.
"We tried to find some exotic, beautiful dishes that have more of our original Thai flavors," he said of the new menus. "Each chef has their own unique special dishes, their favorites. Both the chefs are from the north -- Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. Normally what they do is they make some dishes and give it to us to taste for our approval before we give it to the customers. We also have our recipes here that they follow for the standard dishes that most restaurants have, but the taste isn't exactly the same, because at each location they make their own curry pastes and sauces from scratch.
"We don't do everything exactly 100 percent Thai because if we did, I don't think a lot of people here would like it. For instance, in Thailand we use shrimp paste, and it's very stinky -- a lot of people would not like that. We don't put the dry pickled radish and dried shrimp in the restaurant's pad thai either, for that reason, and also because some people are allergic to seafood. I haven't seen any purely authentic Thai cooking like I cook at home in any restaurants here. But we do change the menu from time to time to keep it interesting, and we are always trying to improve the quality of dishes."