Carla Meyer

Dining review: Sacramento's Thai Cottage delights with exotic comfort food

I have rarely been to a bad Thai restaurant. But sometimes the good and very good Thai restaurants in our midst fail to do enough to showcase the kind of passion, importance and dynamism that is woven into so much of daily life in Thailand.

Consequently, we sometimes don't have the cues for how we should respond to this kind cooking, which accentuates an array of herbs and spices in a dynamic way, with all kinds of colors on the plate, a range of aromas sweeping over the dining room, the soothing familiarity of it all.

To walk the streets of a major Thai city like Bangkok, as I understand it, is to encounter the lively interplay of people and food – the sounds and sights and smells of the cooking. The challenge is figuring out where to stop and how to eat: simple or elaborate, indoor or out, seated or standing, intimate or communal, hurried or not.

Skillful cooking is on display at several Thai food spots in the Sacramento area. But walking into a Thai restaurant on this side of the world is too often a solemn event – canned music, kitschy décor and service that safely can be called accommodating but underwhelming.

At Thai Cottage, tucked into an unassuming little strip mall along Howe Avenue, I got glimpses of the real Thai culinary passion through food that is consistently some of the best in town.

Over several visits, we ordered from all areas of the menu. We ate in, we took out, we had leftovers the next day, sometimes without reheating. All of the food stood up to the test. The plates were so colorful, the food so finely prepared, the flavors pulsating all over the palate.

Once, when I wanted to push the envelope, I ordered a $7.25 lunch special, pa nang with beef, and asked that it be prepared hot – not just hot but "Thai hot."

Such an order, when it found its way back to the cook, must have inspired either a snicker or a respectful nod, for my dish, prepared in mere minutes with a red curry sauce blended with roasted chili and herbs in coconut milk, turned out to be perhaps the hottest meal I have ever had.

It was hotter than any chicken vindaloo I can remember at Indian restaurants, hotter than the hottest hot sauce at the barbecue joint I frequented during my days in Alabama. It was beads-on-the-forehead hot. It was runny nose in July hot, chug-a-lug the water hot, take out a lighter and put the flame to your tongue hot.

After the first searing, shocking and potentially humiliating mouthfuls, something remarkable unfolded. There was flavor to go along with the inferno, and those notes – with the peppers, with the meat, with the exotic complexity of the sauce and the mix of vegetables – began to stand up to the heat. I could taste the coconut milk. I could appreciate the nuance of the curry.

This was real Thai cooking – lively, intense, balanced, delicious – washed down with the best 11 glasses of water I've ever had!

On other visits, we turned down the thermostat and went with anything from mild, medium and hot – but not too hot.

Spiciness is based on personal preference. I prefer many Thai dishes with a heat index above average – medium hot. Food that is too hot might bowl you over, dominate your meal or leave you unable to finish eating.

High-octane spiciness is a non-issue in several dishes at Thai Cottage. The barbecued chicken marinated in Thai herbs is a case in point. It's a straightforward dish that will appeal to all kinds of eaters, including fussy ones. The meat is so tender and the flavors are subtle yet delicious. There are no bold pronouncements like what I encountered with my lunch special and with the more typical Thai offerings like No. 40 on the menu, goong-prik-pao ($14.95), a dish of jumbo prawns in a roasted chili sauce with undertones of garlic and basil.

The best way to check out Thai food is to go a bit outside your comfort zone. Try something you wouldn't normally get. I am on the lookout for whatever might be interesting or eye-opening, even eventful. Thai restaurants in the U.S. tend to play it safe and, sadly, they tend to do variations of the same menu.

In that sense, Thai Cottage is not going to blow anybody's socks off.

The menu is familiar. Maybe it's too mainstream for its own good, but it is also finely tuned and the cooking is solid and reliable. The folks in the kitchen know their herbs and they have their palates nicely dialed for balance, for heat, for the proper way to make a curry and for getting the vegetables just right.

The yellow curry dish, for instance, is much more soothing than the red curry sauce I had during that lunch that nearly floored me. Both are enjoyable in their own way.

Called gang-ga-ree, the yellow curry, it says on the menu, is bolstered with Thai herbs and spices in coconut milk. What does this mean? Thai herbs?

For those who seek out Asian cooking, Thai food is that one cuisine that seems at once familiar and foreign, with a melding of herbs that can taste so exotic while ringing so true. That may be why Thai food provided much of the inspiration for the so-called fusion cooking that emerged from the Bay Area 30 years ago.

These days, looking at menus of restaurants featuring modern California cuisine, we inevitably see touches of Asian flavors. Ella Dining Room & Bar, under its talented executive chef Kelly McCown, is one example. Some of McCown's best dishes are noteworthy for aligning ingredients that are sweet, hot, sour and salty, as they were in a memorable watermelon-and-rock-shrimp dish that was highlighted by a vinaigrette made with fish sauce, lime juice, minced garlic and chopped Thai chilies. Basil, mint, cilantro found their way into this dish, too. These are the herbs McCown and others like to call the "holy trinity of Asian cooking."

And these are the herbs, along with plenty more, that find their way into many of the dishes at Thai Cottage. Stir-fried eggplant with shrimp and chicken in a sauce made with black beans and spicy garlic. A traditional pad thai offering made with rice noodles, shrimp and tofu and pulled together with a sweet tamarind sauce. One of my favorite dishes at this consistently good restaurant is kra-prao. It's just $8.95 and you can get it with chicken, beef or pork. I asked for it hot – but not Thai hot – and was thrilled with how it all balanced so well.

One way I test the quality of cooking is with leftovers – not only how the flavors stand up the next day, but how do they taste cold? Somehow, leftovers eaten when cold seem to showcase the disparate flavors more distinctly. This dish was remarkable still, plucked from the fridge and devoured while standing in the kitchen.

Alas, Thai Cottage allowed me to indulge my passion for Thai cooking, but it didn't necessarily show me a new world or a new way of eating. For that, I will surely have to travel to the source and make food the focal point.

Until then, we are doing quite well with what Thai Cottage has to offer. This is comfort food – lovely, lively, exotic, healthy comfort food.