Location, location, location! Restaurants live and die by where they set up shop. I wish someone had told that to the folks behind Fa-Sai Thai when they decided to open a second eatery in Santa Ana.
Fa-Sai's original spot in Anaheim has packed guests in for a couple of years, so I was thrilled when an expansion was announced. But my heart sank when I saw where it popped up: in a small shopping plaza off the 5 freeway at First Street, a den of misery that'll remind you of The Walking Dead. Next door and across the street are no-tell motels whose denizens lurk in front of Fa-Sai throughout the day, scratching at themselves or asking folks taking money out of the ATM machine just outside the dining room if they can spare a $20 for a hit. Pimping happens openly on the street; cars far too fancy for the area pop into the parking lot, talk to someone, then zoom off. I hate to dwell too much on the outside for this review, but it's hard to not notice people staring at you through Fa-Sai's windows as you try to scarf down pad Thai.
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And it's a damn shame because the food is delicious, the cuisine pioneering. While Thais make up most of the clientele in Anaheim, Mexicans predominate in SanTana. I've always maintained that Thai food is a natural for Mexicans, from the emphasis on beef and pork to the love of grilled meats, hot spices and sautéed veggies. As a result, Fa-Sai's menu goes through Thai cuisine's greatest hits and includes such mash-ups as Thai pasta (Mexicans do love their noodles, consistently ranking among the top five consumers of instant ramen in the world) and Fa-Sai On the Beach, which reminds me of a tampiqueña in its use of grilled onions, garlic, jalapeños and meat on a skillet.
Speaking of jalapeños, they take a bigger role in Fa-Sai's offerings than Thai peppers, an obvious nod to the place's core clientele. Univisión appears on the SanTana location's TVs at all times. Don't think the other dishes are watered down: Thai purists can find syrupy palm juice to drink, sticky rice for dessert, sausages to munch on and green papaya salad that could cauterize a wound in a flash.
Fa-Sai Thai, 880 W. Lincoln Ave., Anaheim, (714) 956-2830; also at 1640 E. First St., Santa Ana, (714) 371-0175.
But back to location: The Anaheim place is fine, but so is the SanTana one, ultimately, if it gets enough crowds so the deadbeats know better than to come in. The good crowds are already inside; may more come and drive out the pendejos.