Allen Pierleoni

Counter Culture: Thai cuisine takes a few unusual turns at Sawasdee

Prawns were added to the citrusy-sour tom yum soup, a tasty broth seasoned with lemongrass and lime leaves.
Prawns were added to the citrusy-sour tom yum soup, a tasty broth seasoned with lemongrass and lime leaves.

National surveys tell us that burgers, hot dogs, french fries and pizza are among the most popular foods in the U.S., which could help explain the nation’s long-standing obesity epidemic.

It is heartening, then, to learn that Thai food ranks among our most popular ethnic cuisines. Good news because Thai cooking requires so many fresh ingredients, some of them known for their immune-boosting powers. You will find turmeric, ginger, galangal (ginger’s cousin), chilies, lemongrass, coriander, mint, cilantro, onion, garlic, cumin, cayenne, basil, shallot, tamarind, mint leaves, cucumber, tomato, bell pepper and the like.

Thai cuisine is largely one of contrasts: warm and cool, sweet and sour, soft and crunchy. It was influenced by the cooking of India (the curries) and China (the stir-fries), and even Portugal, which in the 1500s introduced a little firecracker called the chili pepper. Despite the latter, the food isn’t inherently hot, but it can be if you ask your server. The term “Thai hot” means tears and sweat running down your face.

Lunch pal and Thai food veteran Norm Marshall and I were kicking all this around at a table inside the echo-y Sawasdee Thai restaurant as we cruised the menu. Norm is president of Headwaters Construction Co. and couldn’t resist suggesting a few structural changes that could be made inside the “clean but unimaginative rectangle, starting with acoustical baffles in the ceiling to deaden the noise.”

Other restaurants have occupied the Sawasdee space – the Plum Blossom Chinese restaurant, the ill-conceived Garlic Shack, and Mongo Mongo Mongolian BBQ. In May 2013 chef Wiboon Chaipant left the popular Sophia’s Thai Kitchen in Davis to open Sawasdee. He had it until last summer, when it changed ownership to the Saechao family.

The menu is wide-ranging but well organized ($8 to $16.50), with familiar faces such as pad Thai, spring rolls, chow mein and curries in green, yellow and red. But it takes off with items of more interest, including Sriracha fried rice, spicy basil lamb, garlic softshell crab and a whole fish.

We ordered five dishes in the interest of a fair tasting, given the number of Thai restaurants overpopulating the Sacramento area. We asked for “medium hot,” but requested a condiments caddy of hot sauces in case we needed more heat. It never showed up. Also, even though we twice asked the server to pace the delivery of the dishes – say, 10 minutes between each – they all pretty much arrived simultaneously, making the table very crowded, though fragrant.

Sawasdee’s take on green papaya salad (som tam) held wonderful heat and texture. The shredded papaya had been traditionally prepared in a mortar with tomato, long bean, garlic, peanuts and lime juice in well-orchestrated harmony. “This is a great combination of flavors,” Norm said. Agreed.

We added prawns to the spicy citrusy-sour tom yum soup, a tasty broth of tomato, scallion and onion seasoned with lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves. Floating on top was an armada of cremini mushrooms, which aren’t far removed from everyday white button mushrooms. We agreed that shiitake or oyster ’shrooms would have been a better choice.

“Why is it that the beef in every yum nua I’ve had is tough?” Norm asked. Since I never was able to reach the owners for a follow-up chat, I had no answer. Perhaps it’s the cut of meat? Didn’t much matter, as the fresh greens and citrusy dressing nearly made up for the chewy beef medallions. At last, a salad with enough cilantro.

Avocado curry was a pleasant change-up, a brimming bowl of silken coconut milk infused with green curry paste, spiked with tomato, long beans, basil, shreds of chicken and a perfectly ripe avocado half. It was delicious spooned over steamed white rice, but lacked any trace of heat.

We dined at Sawasdee a few days before the fifth annual Sacramento Bacon Fest (which concludes Sunday), so in anticipation we bet on a dark-horse dish of pork belly with Chinese broccoli and carrots. Unfortunately, our nag didn’t finish in the money. The chunks of pork were tough and dry, and there was nothing special about the veggies.

On the way out, Norm put his palms together and bowed a bit in the “wai,” the traditional Thai greeting and farewell, and uttered the word “sawasdee.”

“In this case, it means ‘goodbye,’ ” he said, and we were out the door, too full to share a fried banana with coconut-pineapple ice cream.

Allen Pierleoni: 916-321-1128, @apierleonisacbe


Where: 1830 J St., Sacramento

Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily



How much: $$-$$$

Information: 916-329-8678,