‘You Gotta Try This’ chicken Panang curry
This is “You Gotta Try This,” The Bee’s series featuring one particular must-have dish at a local restaurant. Each featured dish is nominated by a reader. Got a menu item you want to shine some light on? Email reporter Benjy Egel at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nawarant “Jen” Santillan spent more than a decade working as a server at various Sacramento Thai restaurants, only picking up a knife and cutting board when home with her two sons.
So when Santillan opened Changs Thai Cuisine as the chef/owner last year, she stuck to what she knew: the hearty dishes her student-athlete teenage boys wolfed down, with recipes flexible to serve the wide range of dietary restrictions she ran into while waiting tables.
“I try to cook as much as (possible) like I’d cook at home for the customers,“ Santillan said. “We don’t add too much sugar, too much salt because now people want to be healthy. I want to eat healthy too, so I just want to serve our customers food you could get at (my) home.”
Changs’ panang curry, a dish reader Janet O’Brien called “so spectacular that it’s always part of our meal when we go,” epitomizes that approach. The typical peanuts, shrimp paste and fish sauce are conspicuously absent unless requested, making the dish vegan-friendly and palatable for people with nut allergies.
All meat in the restaurant is Halal, a nod to Santillan’s former Muslim neighbors in Bangkok, which also means no dish can be made with pork. The soy sauce is gluten-free — harder to find than one might assume — and low-sodium.
In spite of — or, perhaps, because of — all that it acquiesces, the small Thai restaurant tucked away in a North Natomas shopping center has become an unlikely regional favorite. Changs’ has 4.5 stars on Yelp after more than 130 reviews, and the panang curry (also found under phanang, phanaeng, penang or other transliterations) sells as well as any item on the menu, Santillan said.
Cooks at Changs start the dish by mashing lemongrass, galangal, dried and fresh chilis, garlic, kaffir leaves and other spices together to form a curry paste, which is heated over a stovetop with vegetable oil and coconut milk to form a golden-brown mixture.
They then add vegetable broth, green beans, carrots and the customer’s choice of tofu, chicken, beef, shrimp, salmon, squid or mixed seafood (Santillan recommends chicken) before letting the curry cook for about 10 minutes until boiling.
Prices range from $8.95 for chicken, beef or tofu during lunch to $13.95 for salmon or mixed seafood during dinner. Either meal comes with a side of steamed white or brown rice, and vegetables rotate as seasonal.
Santillan first started cooking as a 10-year-old in Bangkok, mashing chilies and garlic for her grandmother’s sticky rice and barbecued chicken stand. At home, her mom and grandmother taught her the curries and noodle dishes now found on Chang’s menu, she said.
“If you’re walking in Bangkok, you’re going to find lots of street food. That’s how my family started — we just sold in the street, in the market,” Santillan said.
She moved to Sacramento after marrying an American in 2000 and waited tables at A Bakery & Thai Food, Tuk Tuk Restaurant and Thai Cottage Restaurant for about 10 years before opening Changs Thai Cuisine in February 2018. Chang translates to “elephant” in Thai and the restaurant’s walls are covered with tapestries of the animal, though Santillan said customers occasionally hear the name and walk in expecting Chinese food.
CHANG’S THAI CUISINE
3620 N Freeway Blvd. #310, (916) 333-2978
Hours: 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and 4:30 to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday, 12 to 9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Free Thai iced tea or coffee with social media check-in