Friday, May 11, 2012 at 8 a.m.
For this list of ten great Thai restaurants, not only have I included those from Long Beach (a non-OC city that's always been under this paper's jurisdiction), but also some Thai-Cambodian, some Thai-Laotian, and even a Thai-sushi hybrid, because if variety is the spice of life, then why not even more spice from even more cultures known for their fiery foods.
As always, share your picks in the comments.
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!