Thais That Bind

She's holding on to his little tusks with both hands. She nuzzles her face right into his trunk, between his eyes. You can tell they're in love. The picture of the shaved-head girl monk and the young Thai elephant stands out in this land of ice creams and art shops. It's a blown-up picture outside one of the open-sided kiosks here at Coronado's Ferry Landing.

The sign says "Little cafe, lotta Thai."

Well, you know me and Thai. It's a right-brain thing. That place was my life for a couple of years. 'Course, when I get through the terrace umbrellas to the counter, expecting some cute Thai gal, the joke's on me. There's this tall, blond-headed guy waiting.

"Sample?" he says. He points to a dozen woks steaming over their hot bath. Wow. Whole array of red, yellow, green, brown stews and curries, and golden deep fries.

"How's about some panang, and, uh, spicy basil chicken."

I'm being clever here. I figure panang, because that's your cliché Thai curry dish. But done right, it's rich, not too coconut-sweet, and with enough curry and color, you can bet the rest of the menu's gonna be okay too. I go for the spicy basil chicken because it has the two-pepper warning. I need to know how hot is "hot." Hate when hot's not.

The guy brings me the samples. Mmm. Panang's fine. Rich, pink. Sweetness doesn't kill the curry taste. Spicy chicken's OK, but really, not whack-in-the-back-of-your-gills fiery. Ah, well. Guess they have to consider their more delicate customers.

So the deal is simple. À la carte dishes are $7.95, a two-entrée combo plate is $8.95, and a three-entrée plate is $9.50. Apart from panang, they have red curry chicken, green curry pork, pineapple curry with chicken, then dishes like chicken and veggies in oyster sauce or grilled chicken satay. They also have a vegetarian section with pad Thai noodles, basil eggplant with crispy tofu, and a yellow tofu curry with potatoes and carrots in a coconut-curry cream sauce.

The good thing is, you can see what your choice is. Not just pretty pictures. And it's the visuals that get me. A tilapia "topped with sweet veggies and Thai chili sauce" sits there in its wok, squares of the sautéed flesh floating in a sea of chopped-up scarlet and green and yellow peppers and veggies. I order that. And while I'm on the seafood kick, I go for a second entrée of cashew shrimp.

Damn. Second thoughts. Cashew shrimp's kind of Chinese-ish. Now I'll miss out on all the curries I love.

The guy, Derek, asks if I want white rice or brown. Ooh. That's good. Brown means whole-grain. Nuttier, healthier than white.

"Brown," I say.

I hand over my $8.95 for the two-entrée plate, plus $1.50 for a Thai iced tea. It's $11.26 with tax. Derek asks which I want more of. I see the molded plastic plate is divided unevenly. I make the tilapia the main one. Then I take it all outside. Find a table under the shade of a fig tree. I dilly for a moment, watching rich folk rolling by aboard their Segues, kids having their portraits sketched, a mighty cruiser heading home under the bridge. And for a moment I just listen. Wow. No traffic. Only chat, leaves rustling, waves slapping, music somewhere, ferry tooting. It's a trip. I start in on the cashew shrimp. I'd still rather have a nice rich curry, but it's fine.

Oh, yes. Now we're talkin'. I've chomped into the tilapia. This has everything. Dee-licious. Sweet, but also sour. Sour, but also spicy-hot (though, 'course, it could be hotter). And the brown rice underneath is a perfect fit.

So I'm attacking that tilapia like it was the last one out of the Salton Sea, when Derek and a beautiful Thai gal wander out. She's Chalinee, the chef. "We call this pla sam lot," says Chalinee. "'Fish three-flavors.' That means it's sweet, salty, and spicy at the same time."

"Chalinee knows cooking," says Derek. "She learned it from her dad."

It turns out that Derek, who looks like the surfing dude he once was, is an airline pilot who took a trip with a buddy to Thailand a while back.

"We went to Pukhet, in the south," he says. "That's where I met Chalinee."

Chalinee was studying marketing in college there. She invited Derek to visit her family way up north in Chiang Rai, near Burma and Laos. There, he tasted her dad's cooking. "It was wonderful," he says. "Food was nonstop."

"I learned everything about cooking from my father," Chalinee says. "He told me, 'Everything must come from the heart.'"

So later, when Chalinee stopped in San Diego on her way back from visiting relatives in New York, the idea of starting a restaurant here in Coronado came up. Derek got a lot of help with this from his dad Michael, who's part owner of the 1887 Boathouse restaurant in Glorietta Bay. "He made it happen," Derek says.

I see they have a license for draft beer and wine. Chalinee says they're getting in Chang brand beer from Thailand.

"Chang means 'elephant,'" Chalinee says.

I look at the photo of the girl monk and the elephant.

"Cozying up to an elephant seems to be the thing around here," I say.

"Don't worry," says Derek. "Our Elephants will be nice and chilled."

[June 2009 Editor's Note: Thai Café has since closed.]

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