Just Like Mom's
Thai Swan is home cooking made simple and comfy
When you talk about any Thai restaurant in Orange County, the inevitable question will be asked: Is it as good as Thai Nakorn? Around these parts, Thai joints face the same scrutiny that befalls basketball players named Jordan and actors named Hanks. All anyone cares to know is how they stack up against the best.
Upon initial inspection of Thai Swan's menu—which has teriyaki chicken and tempura squeezed in among Thai staples—the hardened Thai Nakorn fan might prematurely pass judgment. But once you've had the food, making the comparison will feel as callous as pitting your mother's cooking against Daniel Boulud's.
And that's precisely what Thai Swan's food tastes like: a meal cooked by mom. More specifically, by owner Aree Shepard, an eternally cheery Thai lady who dotes on every customer and calls them "honey." Just like her sparsely decorated restaurant, her meals are simple and comfortable—the kind that might not dazzle your eyes, but your soul will love.
A prime example is Aree's Signature Stew—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.
Ask Aree for a recommendation, and she'll point you toward the Hot Thai Basil, which has bell peppers, onions, mushrooms and your choice of meat stir-fried with basil leaves and a red chile sauce. Although it tasted fine then, I found it even better as the next day's leftovers.
The kang mas sa man is also tastier the next day. Initially, the thick gravy—made of yellow curry paste, peanut sauce and coconut milk—seems weak. But its aroma and flavor potential bloomed when I reheated and ate it with rice in front of the TV. The silkiness animates the planks of white-meat chicken, coarse chunks of unpeeled potatoes and cashews—like a good gravy should.
You won't need a doggie bag for the pan-fried spinach, which you'll gobble up faster than Popeye would. For the dish, tender leaves are wilted in the wok, and then stir-fried with garlic, black bean sauce and your choice of protein. I found that beef works best against the greens' chlorophyll bitterness.
A dish similar to Thai Swan's sweet-and-sour catfish fillet exists at every Thai restaurant in the county, but Aree's version is executed particularly well. The slab of fish is meaty, fried crisply under batter, and smothered in a syrupy glaze flecked with onions and carrots.
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Thai Swan's pad kee mow—thin ribbons of rice noodles wokked with chile, onions, bamboo shoots, carrots, bell peppers, Thai basil and mushrooms—is as good as any I've had. In every strand, there's a surreptitious burn that quietly builds. Though it could've done without the cabbage, the same goes for her tom kha chicken soup, which is everything the Thai restaurant standard should be: hot, sour, sweet and rich with coconut milk.
Appetizers such as the Bangkok Firecracker Shrimp and the Golden Bag Shrimp are greaseless, hot and designed to be paired with a cold bottle of Singha beer. Since the former harbors an unexpected chile wallop in its batter, you'll need at least two bottles. The latter, on the other hand, are harmless—cute bundles of wonton skin filled with chopped shrimp.
Dessert also features the bite-sized and the crunchy. Surrounding two scoops of honey-drizzled coconut ice cream are tiny, fried banana egg rolls Aree and company meticulously wrap to crisp parcels the width of a stamp. It's exactly the kind of loving detail you'd expect from a mom.
Thai Swan, 724 E. Katella Ave., Orange, (714) 532-4935; www.thaiswanrestaurant.com. Open Tues.-Fri., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., noon-10 p.m. Dinner for two, $20-$40, food only. Beer, wine and sake.