Restaurant or Drug?

Photo by Jessica CalkinsI finish each meal at Orange's Cha Thai Restaurant more wired than a Pentium 5. But I'm never resentful. Indeed, I like to lose my lucidness there at least once a week. Hidden in a bleak strip mall (is there any great Orange County restaurant that isn't?), Cha Thai distills Thai cuisine's pleasure-creating nature into each of their 89 offerings to prepare food so delicious it's debilitating.

Take the soups. Once when dining with friends, I wanted to impress them with my culinary acumen, so I ordered the tom kah chicken soup—a dish my tongue had never touched. But I knew I wouldn't be disappointed. In a previous lunch, I randomly picked the silver noodles soup (a pool of chicken, shrimp, vegetables and the namesake noodles); the ambrosia quickly became a regular on my menu. And their how-do-they-make-money-with-this? $4.95 lunch special features an outstanding won ton soup. I eagerly awaited another winner based on those positive experiences.

The tom kah was rich—too rich. The soup contains tender chicken, mushroom, cabbage, lemon grass and galangal (Thai ginger) chunks swimming in coconut milk and lime juice. It's probably the most delicious broth ever boiled, but cocaine's supposed to be good, too. I sipped only about half of my serving before having funny visions. Soon, the large portrait of Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit hanging above the television in the center of Cha Thai explained why Thai last names are so long. Meanwhile, the two life-size wooden statues of women that greet you upon entering laughed at my inability to finish the dish. The cute elephants on the counter harrumphed in disdain. Despite my dementia, I demanded more tom kah, but my friends—the sweet jerks!—ignored my babbling, pushed me aside and greedily fought over the remaining portion.

Similar weirdness accompanied the curries. The yellow selection is optimal for those who sport the same color on their bellies, so be brave and step up a spice level to the red curry. Its marvelous mixture of bamboo shoots, bell peppers and coconut milk will give you the sensation of having had sex for two hours in a sauna. But if you have no immediate commitments, order the green curry. Like the tom kah, this superb dish is safe only in gradual spoonfuls; consume its fire too fast, and you'll be as coherent as Bill Simon explaining his tax returns.

The soups and curries at Cha Thai are worth the conscious warping, but there are safer, still-savory choices. The pad prik is made of sautéed bean sprouts soaked in a sweet sauce laden with bell peppers and refreshing Thai basil. Then there's the basil leaves wrapping around spicy bamboo shoots along with cooked-just-right onions, mushrooms, carrots and chilies. You can order chicken, beef, pork or shrimp to accompany these dishes, but the pad prik and spicy bamboo taste best without any carcasses.

Non-hallucinogenic as well are the noodle dishes. The restaurant does a beautiful version of pad Thai. Their humongous network of chantaboon noodles, ground peanuts and bean sprouts will make your next three meals unnecessary. But be adventurous when it comes to noodles. Every non-Thai who visits a Siamese restaurant always gets the pad Thai. Try the drunken noodles (big pasta threads cooked with various vegetables) or the pad see ew (fried fat strings subsumed in a fish sauce that's as addicting as caffeine) and discover joys your taste buds only dream about.

And don't be unimpressed by the simplicity of the fried rice dishes, as each is a wonder of taste that will have you savoring every last grain. Especially drool-inducing is the pineapple fried rice, a hill of the said cereal jutting with jalapeños, pineapple, raisins and cashew nuts. The size of each ingredient is big without obtruding the others' flavor, and their interplay will delight even the most demanding palates.

Whatever dish you order at Cha Thai, it will induce reactions that under any other situation would have you questioning your substance intake. Unconscious release of effluvia, fights over soup, incoherent ramblings—is Cha Thai a restaurant or drug? Get hooked like me and find out.

Cha Thai Restaurant, located at 1520 W. Chapman Ave., Orange, is open Mon.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. (714) 978-3905. Beer and wine. Dinner for two, $12-$16, food only. All major credit cards accepted.

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