You Got Thai Food in My Sushi!
With its blend of subtlety and scorching heat, Bai Plu makes perhaps the most culinarily nonsensical restaurant combo imaginable seem like it was meant to be
Indecisive people, take warning: Bai Plu Cuisine & Sushi Bar’s menu will make your head explode. If you had trouble at the voting booth last November . . . oh, wait, you’re reading OC Weekly. Bad example. So, if you had trouble at the voting booth in last February’s primaries (better?), then you’ll be equally flummoxed when you’re presented with a roster that lists not one, but two kinds of cuisine—Bai Plu does both Thai and Japanese.
What’s more, there are two Bai Plu locations to pick from, both in Long Beach. Both have identical menus. So let me make this part easy for you: Go to the new one on Bellflower Boulevard. The older one has a notoriously small parking lot and is buried deep in the cramped, urban jungle of Seventh Street. The new one is barely three months old and still sparkling. Parking is a breeze, the staff is just as accommodating, and the food is excellent.
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, also. On a recent trip, every other Thai restaurant I encountered had a sushi bar grafted to it, doing neither cuisine justice. One in Alabama still sticks in my craw: The yellow curry tasted like it came from a can, and the rice in the sushi rolls was gummier than those prepackaged horrors at the grocery store.
It only took one trip to Bai Plu to erase the bad memories of that meal and to prove the restaurant not only has the guts to tackle two disparate cuisines from countries thousands of miles apart, but it also has the chops to do it well.
Still, there’s that menu. 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.
By the time you reach the Japanese section, you’ll feel as though you’ve just skimmed through War and Peace and the teacher’s about to hand out a pop quiz. Inevitably, you’ll find yourself as I did, shooing the attentive servers away when they come around asking if you’re ready to order. You’ll need at least 10 minutes to decide.
Here’s a tip: Unless you intend to commit yourself exclusively to the Japanese side of menu, use it as your appetizers. It’s heavy in rolls with fanciful names. The best is the Sweet Girl Roll, which is adorned with thin slices of sweet mango and crunchy tempura crumbs as topping, with crab, avocado and masago as filling. No other roll provides a better bridge to what will be your Thai-centric main dishes.
The fruit topping eases you into the deep-fried trout, served with a tangy sauce of shredded young mango. Since the fish is splayed out like a book, boneless, simply breaded and unseasoned when it’s fried, you’ll want to douse each bite with that sauce. The concoction puckers your lip the same time it scorches it.
Standards such as tom kha gai are brought out gurgling in those chimneyed vessels you’ve come to know and love, with the bracing flavors of lime juice, lemongrass and the mouth-coating silkiness of coconut cream. Though pineapple curry isn’t seen much at other Thai restaurants, it should be. Bai Plu’s is fantastic. It starts sweetly like Hawaiian Punch, then blossoms into a full-bodied hotness that spreads into every recess of your mouth.
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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.
This applies to just about all the Thai dishes Bai Plu cooks. Given that fact, I’d advise against backtracking to the milder Japanese offerings if your palate has traveled too far down the Thai route. If you do, your taste buds will be too numb to appreciate such creations as the fabulously burnt, simply salted, grilled salmon cheek found on the Japanese side. This goes double for their nigiri sushi and their even-more-delicate Japanese salads.
A better solution is to come on a separate trip just to try the Japanese food alone. Also, this way, you’ll narrow down the difficult chore of choosing, and as everyone knows, that’s half the battle.
Bai Plu Thai Cuisine & Sushi Bar at 2119 Bellflower Blvd., Long Beach, (562) 343-2651; www.baipluthaiandsushi.com. Open Sun.-Thurs., 10 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 10 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Dinner for two, $30-$45, food only. Wine and sake.