Of all the categories of ethnic restaurants, Thai eateries tend to be the most beautifully decorated: Every one seems to host paintings of pagodas, statues of various incarnations of Buddha, pictures of beautiful Thai women, and at least one photo of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, a touch that seems as mandatory to Thai restaurants as a portrait of the Virgin of Guadalupe is to Mexican ones.
That's why I was a bit perturbed on my initial visit to MaDee Thai Kitchen, in that part of Costa Mesa that's about to turn into Newport Beach. There's a replica of the Great Buddha of Thailand . . . and that's it. The white-and-crimson walls are bereft of any paintings; the menu is tacked onto a marquee and devoid of any dish descriptions. There are only a couple of tables and chairs, and all food comes served on plastic plates by a man and wife dressed as though they're cafeteria workers at Estancia High School. Its no-frills style extends down to the entrées, which don't stray far from the pad Thai/fried rice/curry/tom yum quadrant that dominates that country's eating in Orange County. In a county with many Thai restaurants but few great ones, MaDee is the epitome of a restaurant that's as great a place can be without being a hell of a restaurant. This isn't an insult: All the dishes here please better than their local competition—the curries, in particular, exhibit the nuances that distinguish Thai curry from its Southeast Asian competition. But this is a place definitely for the locals, for people who want the tried-and-true at their absolute height—the Lou Gehrig of Thai restaurants, as opposed to the Babe Ruth, which makes the décor even that much more telling.
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There are a couple of regional specialties that hint at MaDee's ultimate worth. The moo ping is similar to a chicken satay except better, sweeter; kao soi is a gorgeous soup composed of crunchy egg noodles submerged in yellow curry, then spiked with raw onions, chilies and other condiments, transforming the bowl from a hearty meal into something electric. A dish called "pork jerky with sticky rice" is more well-cooked pork with white rice, but it's spectacular and features a fish sauce that's the liquid equivalent of lightining. MaDee will probably always skew toward the safe given the demographics of its location, and that's fine: Sometimes all an eater wants is a heap of pad Thai, sweet and sticky, and MaDee will satisfy that yen like a honey in a bikini on Balboa come sunset.
This column appeared in print as "The Lou Gehrig of Thai Cooking."