Larb salad, usually among the more benign offerings on a Thai restaurant menu, sparked controversy at Orchid Thai Restaurant + Bar in midtown Sacramento.
Orchid’s larb salad, at least in its tofu version (chicken, pork or beef are other options), does not look much like a salad. Pieces of fried tofu dominate the plate, with a big hunks of raw cabbage, served on the side, their main accompaniment.
My two companions ranked this dish, which they said did not taste fresh, among the worst they’d tried at any Thai restaurant. I disagreed, finding its combination of tofu, tangy lime juice, salty fish sauce and red onions reminiscent of flavored Doritos or Fritos. Although such comparisons are not what one anticipates when ordering a salad, why question the form in which satisfaction arrives when one can just celebrate its arrival?
Days later, my friends still were talking about how they disliked the larb salad. So I ordered it at lunch with a different companion, to see what she thought. On this day, the tofu tasted more freshly fried and the flavors surrounding it even more vibrant, from the lime and fish sauce to lemongrass and mint. My companion said the dish delivered the flavors she associates with Thai food. In other words, she liked it.
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The larb vote count, of 2-2, reflects my larger, split-down-the-middle experience at Orchid Thai, a 3-month-old restaurant that sits next to Magpie Cafe in the new 16 Powerhouse building at 16th and P streets. For every dish that wowed (a piquant yet soothing tom yum soup), another disappointed (drunken noodles with too-dry pork).
Orchid Thai also suffers from over-service, that phenomenon in which too many members of the staff arrive at one’s table during a meal. Forging a connection with one’s server, no matter how fleeting that connection might be, enhances the dining experience. But on our first visit to Orchid Thai, our original server’s face became a dim memory as other people – either other servers or food runners, and maybe even the bartender? – approached our table to deliver dishes or ask how we were doing.
Clearly, Orchid Thai’s owners, Wa Tchang and Danny Fung (Tchang also owns the original Orchid Thai, in Lincoln), want to ensure diners are taken care of. But the team approach did not prevent service gaps.
It took at least 15 minutes, on that first visit, for someone to clear plates as we waited to settle the bill, even though it was evident we were done. Another visit included a long lag time between when we ordered and when our first dish arrived. That second delay seemed tied more to the kitchen than to our friendly server, who consistently returned to our table instead of relying on proxies.
Wait times at Orchid Thai seem longer than at other places because it’s so difficult to hold a conversation there, amid all the noise created by other diners. High ceilings and cafeteria-style open seating contribute to the din.
The place looks spacious and airy, though, with abundant wood in the bar area adding warmth. Orchid Thai goes a bit heavy on the flower theme, however. An orchid mural covers one wall and a series of orchid paintings another, giving the place too much of a Georgia O’Keeffe vibe, as if Thailand sits near Taos instead of Laos.
The bouncy alternative rock on the sound system, the significant real estate devoted to the bar area and the “+ bar” in its name give Orchid Thai a slightly clubby air. The restaurant offers a series of specialty cocktails, including a cherry lime-aid vodka drink that’s less Shirley Temple-esque, and fuller bodied, than it sounds, thanks to the ginger beer in its mix. Teetotalers might have a harder time at Orchid Thai, though, judging by its weak, nearly flavorless nonalcoholic lemonade.
That these two drinks exist in the same restaurant seemed less like a surprise, and more like the story of Orchid Thai, by about midway through my third and final visit. This visit featured the second round of larb salad, plus an outstanding coconut shrimp appetizer containing shrimp that were noticeably juicy – a striking trait, given how, in many instances, the highest compliment one can pay restaurant shrimp is “not rubbery.”
But our massaman-curry entree tasted odd. Orchid Thai uses sliced beef in this curry rather than the traditional stew meat. Texturally, it’s all wrong, and when we tried it, the beef also was dry. Something in the dish – perhaps the potatoes and carrots – lent the sauce a starchy-milky flavor suggestive of (to take everybody way back) baby formula.
We also ordered a soft-shell crab special served with a curry sauce that was flavorful but too heavy for the delicate (and well-cooked) crab.
To recap, this visit entailed two successes (coconut shrimp, larb salad) and two disappointments (massaman, crab). This ratio matched that of my two previous visits, including the one in which my friends launched their larb protest. On that visit, we were impressed by a green curry containing tofu with just enough chew, and a cashew stir fry in which the cashews maintained a bit of crunch – and let down by a bland pad thai and summer rolls consisting mostly of tasteless lettuce.
The summer rolls had sparked another debate, regarding the peanut sauce accompanying it. My friend urged me to call it “gluey,” when I prefer “gummy.” Because my friend proved a good sport during an uneven meal, I’ll go with gluey.
Orchid Thai Restaurant + Bar
1609 16th St., Sacramento, www.orchidthai916.com, (916) 476-3681
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Wednesday. 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Thursday. 11 a.m.-midnight Friday and Saturday.
Beverage options: Full bar, including specialty cocktails.
Vegetarian friendly: Yes. There is an extensive vegetarian menu.
Gluten-free options: Yes.
Noise level: Loud.
Ambiance: Light and spacious, but loud.
Food and service are inconsistent, but the space is inviting, and a few dishes are true standouts.
Our experience was split right down the middle. The pad thai and drunken noodles – common tests for Thai food in the United States – both disappointed. But the coconut shrimp appetizer and the tom yum soup were very good.
To mix metaphors, there can be too many cooks in the front of the house at Orchid Thai. On one visit, so many people came to our table – servers, food runners, etc. – that we felt no sense of consistency of service. And all those people did not prevent us from waiting too long to have our plates cleared. On another visit, however, service was slightly slow but the friendly server consistently returned to the table.
Value ☆☆ 1/2
Entrees cost less than $20, and portions are substantial in most instances. But if you examine some items closely, they’re not always values. Like the tofu larb salad. As much as I like it, it’s a pile of tofu next to a pile of raw cabbage, for $8.95.