Along with being the OC GOP's Latino-outreach coordinator or cleaning Huntington Beach after the Fourth of July, one of the most unenviable positions in Orange County to find yourself in is being a Thai restaurant in Stanton. No matter how delicious you may be, fans of Thai food will ignore you in favor of Thai Nakorn, the legendary spot that draws in people from across Southern California. Sure, you might nab a couple of folks who don't know any better, but the Thai-food scene in the working-class city resembles an inverted pyramid—eventually, you'll slip down toward the only place that seemingly matters.
It's an unfortunate spot for Chaba Thai to be in, and you can tell the owners know this. Free Thai iced tea in Mason jars will suddenly appear; the to-go menus have multiple coupons printed along the bottom. Siamese design flourishes are kept to a minimum; there's a menu above the counter, with the glossy and to-go varieties, to expedite ordering. Chaba Thai will use any edge to ensure customers, and it has worked, so far—lunchtime finds a steady stream of blue-collar workers picking up lunches, office drones spending a leisurely half-hour before returning to the grind, and young foodie types desperately hoping no one will discover their little secret: the second-best Thai restaurant in Stanton, and one of the best in the county.
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Given its core clientele, Chaba Thai's offerings veer little from the pad Thai/curry/fried rice/triumvirate that dominates that country's cuisine in Southern California—and I'm sure I've written this line before in other Thai-restaurant reviews, but it's true. Those are fine, even great, but the female owners and chefs here distinguish themselves with second-level specialties: an awesome sausage platter is accompanied by slivers of ginger and chili, the perfect bar food (although I don't think they serve beer), as well as perfectly pungent green papaya salad, the shrimp paste and dried shrimp emitting their trademark funk. The chicken larb is simultaneously desiccated and juicy; the curries, while expected, get loaded up with more heat and sweetness than you'll find at similar competitors. Factor in the preposterously low prices—the lunch special comes with an entrée, a salad and steamed rice for $6.95—and you'll praise Stanton anew.
And then there's the ho mok, a dish even the mighty Thai Nakorn doesn't offer. Chaba Thai merely describes it as "coconut seafood curry," but it's much better: It's seafood curry turned into custard, then topped with coconut cream. The savoriness, the spice, the pungency, the beauty: Chaba Thai might be David to Thai Nakorn's Goliath, but we know how that story turned out.
Chaba Thai, 10444 Knott Ave., Stanton, (714) 229-9208.
This column appeared in print as "David Beats Goliath?"