On the walls of the new Thai restaurant called Munch Bistro in Huntington Beach, you’ll find the obligatory, gauzy glamour shots of Thailand: Long-tail boats float near a sandy beach. A farmer crosses a rickety bridge while he shoulders his crops, which hang from a long wooden staff.
Just as Peruvian restaurants tend to feature pictures of Machu Picchu, these Thai-eatery hallmarks were something I wasn’t surprised to see here. But then there were the things I didn’t expect. First and foremost was the pizza oven. It looked expensive. It was one of those igloo-shaped Neapolitan fornos that can blast-fire a pie in less than 10 minutes. And on the far end of the restaurant, there were the self-serve beer taps. I counted 30 of them, each controlled by a computerized debit system that’s able to dispense alcohol as though it were Diet Coke.
In all honesty, I knew Munch Bistro had pizza on the menu before I came. But looking at that oven, the math didn’t add up. There were only three pies offered. And because the restaurant’s full title is Munch Bistro: Thai With a Twist, all of them were fusion-y experiments that combined Thai flavors with gobs of melted cheese.
The Tom Yum Flat Bread Pizza was topped with shrimp covered in a paste made of kaffir lime leaves, galangal, lemongrass, tomato, lime and chile paste. The other two flatbreads had different ingredients but the same Bangkok-meets-Naples bent. It still puzzled me why anyone would spend tens of thousands of dollars on that oven just to make three pizzas. . . .
It was later that I realized both the oven and the beer taps came with the space. Until late last year, this spot was Blast & Brew, a quick-fired, build-your-own pizza franchise akin to Pieology. Just as a hermit crab repurposes a conch shell, the owners of Munch Bistro adapted. I’d guess the pizzas and the entire “Thai With a Twist” concept materialized because of that oven.
This was a smart decision. For one thing, removing the oven and the beer taps would almost certainly cost more than keeping them. For another, in offering those Thai pizzas, it attracted the likes of yours truly. Let’s face it: Food critics are always looking for an angle. And for me, the prospect of a Thai-flavored pizza immediately distinguished the place from the six other Thai restaurants between the 405 and PCH on Beach Boulevard.
And I wasn’t disappointed. That tom yum pizza packed a wallop. Taking the role of pesto, the paste was uncanny in how it carried the flavors of tom yum. If I dissolved some of it in a bowl of hot water, I’m sure I’d end up with the actual soup. As for the crust and the toppings of jalapeño, onion, bell peppers and cheese, they did their duty to maintain the dish’s definition as a pizza.
I didn’t try the other Western mash-ups of yellow-curry burgers and a mushroom ravioli served in a red curry sauce. But when I found the barbecue pork ribs from the appetizer section, I decided I’d tasted the best fusion dish of all.
A plate of it includes four meaty bones—a better starter than the relatively banal garlic chicken wings. As the glaze that burnished the ribs tasted nearly indistinguishable from what shellacs a typical American baby back, I ate these ribs like I eat all ribs: I relished the burnt, caramelized bits and noted how the meat peels off the bone with just a tug.
But these dishes were all jumping-off points to the Thai-restaurant standards of pad see ew and crab fried rice—the real reason I came. I started with the pad see ew, using it as a benchmark. As my experience has shown, if the pad see ew is great, chances are everything else is. And here, it was wonderful. This dead-simple noodle dish—dark-meat chicken, broccoli and rice-noodle ribbons wok-tossed with sweet soy sauce—checked off all the boxes. The noodles were everything they should be: a little sticky, a little tacky, but still silken.
And just as the pad see ew foretold, everything that came after was exemplary. The crab fried rice—each grain greased in just enough oil—was so full of crabmeat, I smelled it before I tasted it. And there was this homey and ultra-savory stir-fry of pork belly, green beans and basil that I swear tasted like something my mom has made.
So as intriguing as the Thai pizza was, to me, it was the unalloyed Thai dishes that make Munch Bistro competitive against the six others on Beach. But just in case it wants to also go against the pizza parlors, I think it could. There’s only five on that same stretch of road, and I bet few have ovens like this.
Munch Bistro—Thai With a Twist, 18541A Beach Blvd., Huntington Beach, (714) 369-6100; munchbistro.com. Open Mon.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Dishes, $9-$20. Beer and wine.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.