Certain dishes will always defy translation, no matter how multicultural our country gets. Americans, for instance, can't possibly appreciate the Mexican love for putting chile powder on sweets; durian will forever remain a Southeast Asian obsession as the rest of the world retches. And while most people don't blink at eating lamb or veal, the thought of eating duck embryos à la the Filipino balut makes non-Asians scream.
And then we get to the Thai hor mok talay. It's basically seafood custard in a coconut—no, seriously. Throw together an ecosystem of fishes, crustaceans and mollusks, steam them in curry-spiked coconut milk, add a couple of vegetables, and pour the results into a coconut, adding in an egg so everything gels together. There's a parallel in Mexican cuisine—the Sinaloan mariscoco—but whereas that one is served chilled and spicy, hor mok talay is all about savoriness: not too sweet, not too spicy, tangy with the treasures of the sea, but reduced to, well, custard.
It'll never get Instagram famous, and that's why you don't see it at many OC Thai restaurants. But this seafood custard one of the specialties at Mai Thai Restaurant, a gem in a forgettable Fountain Valley shopping plaza. Outside its doors, you see drabness; inside, it's dark, with well-kept tables, a wine case, bar and flat-screens turned to the best things airing during the day (lunch, courtroom TV; dinner, sports). Mai Thai lists the hor mok as the last special, knowing only Thais will order it; last time I got it, the waitress paused for a second, then smiled, almost as if she wanted to warn me about it but decided I knew what I was doing. And I did: The hor mok is delicious, and you have dessert at the end by scraping the coconut meat that absorbed all the curry and seafood juices—that's good eatin'!
Everything else at Mai Thai is just as great, if a bit more common: zippy green papaya salad, slurp-worthy pad Thai and so on. And that's okay; this is Fountain Valley, after all, not Thai Town.
Mai Thai Restaurant, 17938 Magnolia St., Fountain Valley, (714) 963-4929; www.maithaifountainvalley.com.