10. Thai Swan
Thai Swan's food tastes like a meal cooked by Mom. This owner/mother is Aree Shepard, an eternally cheery Thai lady who dotes on all her customers and calls them "honey." Just like her sparsely decorated restaurant, her meals are simple and comfortable--the kind of meal that a Thai kid would crave the minute he leaves the nest. Aree's Signature Stew is one of those dishes--a deep bowl filled with braised hunks of beef, spinach and bean sprouts swimming in broth. The soup is dark and murky and looks a bit like something a camp cook might ladle from a trough. But one sip of the thin brew reveals a smoky, spicy complexity so addictive you'll want to sop up every drop, soak a plateful of rice with and ask for it again when you're feeling homesick.
9. Bai Plu Thai & Sushi
If you've been to the East Coast, you'll know that this type of Thai and sushi double-team is a rampant phenomenon there. It's a downright epidemic in the South. But unlike those restaurants, not only does Bai Plu have the guts to tackle two disparate cuisines from countries thousands of miles apart, but also the chops to do it well. The Thai section alone reads like an epic tome. There are a dozen soups, oodles of noodles, nearly endless varieties of fried rice. Proteins are divvied up into four sections, and that's not including appetizers. Curry is offered in yellow, green, red, panang, massa mun, pineapple and kang pa. Of course, all are customizable with chicken, beef, pork or tofu. And to make it more dizzying, there are also duck and salmon curries. And if you're still not convinced this isn't some sanitized Thai, order the black eggs with chile, garlic and flash-fried Thai basil. In the dish, thousand-year-old egg is featured prominently, sliced in quarters and lording over pieces of stir-fried ground pork. The morsels are as black as tar, jelly-like in consistency and feature a bluish yolk that tastes of a musky, eggy concentrate. It's arresting, bold, as subtle as TNT.
8. Sophy's Fine Thai and Cambodian
Thank goodness Sophy's Fine Thai & Cambodian Cuisine's previous landlord in Long Beach's Cambodia town refused to renew the lease; otherwise, Sophy Khut and her crew wouldn't have had the chance to expand. The new PCH digs is four times the space, and it has its own parking lot. Don't take this to mean that finding a spot is any easier. Word has gotten out on the migration. Regulars who followed Sophy's from Anaheim Street crowd alongside newcomers. You can tell the newbies easily: They'll be the ones ordering the pad Thai and it is good, but the Thai staple is just a gateway drug to the far zippier and electrically charged chan pu. Then venture into more of Sophy's deep and dangerous cuisine. Try Sophy's beef jerky next: gnarled and crispy deep-fried logs of meat, twisted and sooty black, as deeply flavored as they are addictive. Advanced players will ascend to the Cambodian food lover's litmus test: the sadao salads, featuring an innocent baby's-breath-like plant that packs a knee-buckling quinine astringency. Go ahead, try it: It's good for you!
7. Vientiane Thai Laos
For those not quite ready for Lao food's eccentricities, the menu offers all the Thai staples (pad thai, et al). But those primed for funkier fare can dive headlong into Laos' home-grown cuisine. The low demand for Lao food in O.C. seems to reflect itself in the few seats the restaurant has. At our last visit, nine customers is about all it can take at one time. If you were the tenth, your choice was to do take-out or wait outside. In the food, you'll find depths of flavor with unmitigated intensity. Some of this even bleeds over to the typical Thai restaurant favorite of chicken yellow curry. In its murky, coconut-milk gravy, lurks layers of complex, coarsely-flavored spices and an indescribable jungle aura. You eat it with some sticky, glutinous rice, which is served in a stout basket of woven reeds. The starch has the adhesive power of a thousand glue sticks. But unlike regular rice, it's not pasty--an essential property because you are supposed to ball it up with your fingers. As you do, it doesn't gunk up your digits, even as you dunk it into food. It will sponge-up sauce and grab onto other bits of the meal like a charged electromagnet. Move on to the papaya salad, here darkened by fermented shrimp paste. And finally there's the mok pa, a dish that sounds like it's in Klingon, which features a curried fish, hacked to pieces, shoved and steamed inside a banana leaf. The skin has the gelatinous quiver of pudding and the meat feels alien, for no other reason than that it's still attached to bone and cartilage.
6. Rice and Spice Thai
The pad see ewe here is great, but so is everything else, as is often the case when the pad see ewe is great. Don't miss the fried banana dessert paired with coconut ice cream, a blissful yin-yang play on contrasts of the fried with the frozen. This Thai gem in OC's most remotest, most-suburban city caters to a populace who might just settle on the fried rice, which is also excellent--try the crab one that harmoniously combines egg, tomato, onion and gossamer morsels of crabmeat. But they make an excellent Thai beef jerky, too; and a Tilapia sam ros, one of the more expensive dishes, featuring deep-fried filets of the fish glazed and swimming in a tangy red sauce shotgunned with garlic and scorching chile.
5. Bangkok Taste
Inside this restaurant in a bleak strip mall, there are mini faux crystal chandeliers and two fluorescent light panels are covered by decorated stained glass, giving the illusion of skylights. The walls, decorated with framed artwork intricately crafted of beads, are themselves made of elegant faux-stone. The owners made the best out of the space they were alotted and pipe in twangy Thai music. It's usually just a two-person operation, who put out the pad Thai to those who demand it, but also items such as the crispy mussel omelet, a golden disk of egg, the briny morsels, glued together by a sticky starch and served over oil-wilted bean sprouts.
4. Siam Taste of Asia
If every tofu tasted like those from Siam Taste of Asia, we'd see an immediate surge in soy bean futures. These are tofu made into candy. It may look like the same deep fried tofu cubes common to Chinese/Vietnamese/Thai restaurants--the kind you dip into a sauce. And for sure it does come with its own dunking medium. But you won't need it. Not here. It doesn't need extra flavor. It's already tricked out with a coating of a sticky, spicy, sugary-sweet glaze that might as well be a Willy Wonka confection. You will be well advised to wait a few minute before biting into one, unless you want your tongue boiled by a scalding torrent of soy-curd napalm. The custardy, milky lava hides beneath the craggly surface of its crust--a crunchy shell with the same DNA as a tater tot--which is solid enough to make a hollow sound when you rap on it with a spoon. If you ask anyone who's been to the restaurant, all will be agreed on more than just the tofu, and that is that Siam Taste of Asia is an underdog, underappreciated and woefully lacking in customers.
3. Thai & Chinese Express
The name is generic. The food court location, even more so. And since Thai & Chinese Express offers the usual of array of chafing trays where the orange chicken is still a coveted item, most people could be forgiven to dismiss it as such. But slowly, gradually, more and more customers are beginning to realize that there's more behind this food court counter than what can be picked off the steam table line. They're discovering the thing to do is to order a la carte. The kitchen makes a fine pad Thai, but the Thai noodle to eat here is actually pad see ew--the truest expression of this relatively unsung stir fried noodle of Chinese origins and Thai interpretation. It uses not one but three different types of greens: bok choy, American and Chinese broccoli. None of it is overcooked. The beef is plentiful and tender, and the rice noodle ribbons it renders to a silken texture--each slippery belt left with just the slightest chew and thoroughly seeped through of the seasoning. As it needs to ultimately slide into your gullet, a little grease is permissible and expected. But you need to eat it seconds from the blazing heat of the wok to fully appreciate its splendor. It only retains the precious, seared wok-breath for exactly the length of time you'll need to finish the dish...which isn't long.
2. Sutha Thai
The square footage is so scant you've been inside closets with more space. Do not take our description of its smallness as an exaggeration: Sutha can barely fit 10 people comfortably. In fact, the place feels even smaller as more people discover it. The entire restaurant, kitchen included, would fit inside Garden Grove's Thai Nakorn like a marble in a shoebox. But that's all the space it needs. Sutha has but one cook and one server, and they're related. Anywhere you sit, you hear the clangs of a wok being beaten up. Anywhere you stand, you smell what the next table is having. The salmon salad is one discovery everyone makes, but most newcomers initially ignore it, choosing instead the excellent pad see ew, silky yellow curry or pad thai, but to finally taste the salmon salad is to realize that when it comes to Thai restaurants, size doesn't matter.
1. Thai Nakorn
Without so much as a plane ticket, you can eat Thai food at its most authentic, here in Orange County. The place: Thai Nakorn. Sure, there are plenty of other Thai restaurants to choose from, but none has a fan base so devoted that one patron actually offered to pay for a new restaurant when the first burned to the ground. Now resurrected and serving scorching plates laced with Thai bird chiles like no time had passed, Thai Nakorn continues to wow. The best of the lot exists on a section labeled "Specials," where the funky, sweet, salty, hot and sour flavors of Issan cooking cut a path through your taste buds and leave you begging for mercy one moment, for more the next. Try the wild boar with spicy sauce, the Chinese water grass with bean sauce, or the clams in chili paste. One of the best dishes is the mango salad with crispy catfish. It will burn a hole through your mouth and set your head ablaze, but you won't want to stop eating. Innocent shreds of the tart, tropical fruit meld with onions, chiles and crunchy crumbles of catfish the size of Grape-Nuts, making for a refreshingly bright, but unimaginably spicy ordeal for your palate. Now you know what that tall glass of iced Thai tea is for.