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SAWASDEE THAI CUISINE
1830 J St., Sacramento; (916) 329-8678, www.sawasdeesac.com
Hours: Open daily; lunch is 11 a.m.-4 p.m., dinner is 4-10 p.m.
Thai is among the most popular cuisines in the U.S., right up there with Mexican, Italian and Chinese. On the Sacramento dining front, at least, it's nearly impossible to find a bad Thai restaurant. Or a great one. With a few exceptions (Tuk Tuk, Thai Hut, Chantara), they're pretty much the same.
That was the recent conversation between two lunch pals and me, for better or worse. One of the guys has visited Thailand five times and is a steady customer at Thai places in California. The other has dined at hundreds of Thai restaurants all over the U.S. and Canada over the decades, and is blessed (or cursed?) with a discerning palate. You might call them experts on Thai cuisine, from a diner's perspective.
We were very pleasantly surprised with the freshness, quality and innovation of the spreads at Sawasdee, which opened nine weeks ago at 19th and J streets in midtown.
Owner-chef Wiboon Chaipant left the kitchen of the estimable Sophia's Thai Kitchen in Davis to open his own place, with the help of his two daughters.
Menu: Sure, the standards are there – papaya salad, hot-and-sour soup, pad Thai and stir-fried noodles in combinations with veggies, seafood, chicken, beef and pork.
But less-often-seen items also appear – taro fritters, pumpkin stir-fry, curry made from Massaman curry paste (usually used in Indian and Muslim cooking), and black-rice pudding.
Because all the dishes on the menu are letter-number coded, ordering can be like playing Bingo. "We'll have the A-4, the LN-2 and the LC-2, along with the S-7 and the C-5. With Thai iced tea, please."
Price point: Given the quantity and quality of the food, we agreed the prices are very fair – $4-$14, with most items in the $6-$10 neighborhood.
Ambience: You can't miss the corner building – look for the lime- and avocado-green exterior, and the green furniture and flowered umbrellas on the patio.
Inside, various art works and a silhouette painting of a "reclining Buddha" temple lend a sense of serenity, though the space is echoey. Walk around a corner off the dining room and a hallway faces a glass wall that looks into the kitchen.
Other restaurants have occupied the Sawasdee space, but none stayed for long – the Plum Blossom Chinese restaurant, the ill-conceived Garlic Shack and Mongo Mongo Mongolian BBQ. None of them was this good, though.
Drinks: We loved the refreshing aloe drink with shreds of aloe vera pulp. The Thai iced tea and Thai coffee were the real things. Also to drink: Singha (Thai), Sapporo (Japanese) and four American beers, along with four California wines by the glass and bottle.
Service: The servers were engaged in what they were doing. Someone was always visible in the dining room and ready to help.
First impressions: We tasted a medley of meats, seafood, fowl, noodles, rice, sauces and curries, and nodded with each bite at their freshness and flavors.
Po pia sod (veggie-stuffed rolls) with mild fish sauce set a refreshing stage for dish No. 2, crispy, lightly coated squares of clean- tasting calamari, cut in the kitchen from whole squid.
For a salad, pieces of crispy salmon mixed with chunks and gratings of green apple, cucumber, romaine lettuce and cilantro, with splashes of chili-lime dressing.
We spooned gang phed ped (duck curry) over basmati rice, alternating forkfuls of curried rice with chunks of duck and pineapple.
The wide rice noodles in the veggie-heavy pad kee mao (drunken noodles) were not gummy and clumped together, as we've seen in so many versions. The crisp prawns were perfectly cooked and seasoned.
Gang dang (red curry) came out steaming-hot and spicy, full of sliced lean pork, red bell pepper and bamboo shoots in a sauce so aromatic with coconut milk and spices that we swooned.
Try it if: You want Thai food much finer than what's commonly found in many Thai restaurants.
Forget it if: You're a suburbanite who gets confused by one-way streets and digital paid-parking machines.
Call The Bee's Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128.