Carla Meyer

Dining review: Thai food in downtown Sacramento makes a comeback with Bangkok@12

Blair Anthony Robertson
Blair Anthony Robertson

Experience has taught me many things about dining out.

Years ago, for instance, my meals at Thai restaurants were enjoyable but not necessarily captivating. I found a dish or two I liked, and I rarely strayed into unknown territory.

Not until I learned to seek out the entire expression of Thai cuisine in a single sitting did I come to appreciate the magic and the range of flavors.

That means ordering food that showcases the underpinnings of Thai cooking – salty, sweet, sour and hot – that can be bold but balanced.

And that means ordering lots, sampling plenty and sharing the mounds and multitudes with friends and family. Thick noodles, plenty of vegetables, curries that are hot and cool and creamy and crisp, sauces that bring an extra dimension to the plate. Colors across the spectrum, aromas ranging from in-your-face to subtle – they're part of the story, too.

Thai food at its best is a statement about poise, range and dynamism, with hints of the exotic that always seem to ring familiar to the Western palate. Thai food also encourages a communal way of eating. You order and you share, then you compare notes and order some more.

Thai food in the downtown-midtown area was a one-trick pony for years – and in recent years Amarin Thai at the corner of 12th and I streets seemed to have lost its way. The cooking was lackluster. The ingredients were glaringly subpar. The dining experience ranged from ho-hum to dismal.

The last time I ate there, I had the sense they had given up. A few weeks later, the place was closed.

But not for long.

Now it's called Bangkok@12, a catchy, 21st century name that suggests a rebirth, if not an overhaul of the old digs. The owner is Mary Phupong, who used to manage Amarin.

I was skeptical. Was this merely a new name? A touch-up? Or were they serious about reviving this cuisine and winning back the customers from the days when Amarin was actually good?

So I began with takeout. And not only was the food done properly, the service was charming.

Bangkok@12 opened in March 2010, has settled in and appears to be far more than a quick fix.

If you're looking for something with a seasonal tie-in, try the pumpkin curry, which is one of the restaurant's specialties. It comes with prawns, chicken breast, pumpkin, carrots, bell peppers and enough basil and coconut milk to remind you this is quintessential Thai cooking.

The sauce for this dish is red and spicy – how spicy is up to you. If you're looking for a "wow" factor, order it extra hot. This would be a good time to mention that cold beer, a pitcher of ice water and/or Thai iced tea are essential accompaniments. Be forewarned: They may soothe you, but they won't necessarily save you.

Order with an aim toward counterbalance. In this case, we opted for the avocado curry, which is more yellow than bright green like the excellent avocado curry dish at Chada Thai on Broadway. There were several slices of avocado mixed in with the chicken breast, potatoes, onions and carrots – and the creaminess made it seem practically decadent.

This dish doesn't have to be spicy-hot to be enjoyed. And if you're ordering strategically, going the mild route here is a good idea. Brown rice works well, too, providing earthy notes and a more toothsome texture that work well with this selection. With spicy dishes, I tend to prefer white rice.

The flat bread served on the side with the avocado curry is very good – like a tender, melt-in-your-mouth croissant.

We then looked for something sweet and sour. That's not necessarily easy to get right, but Bangkok@12 with the balance of the barbecue chicken, marinated then grilled in the Thai style. Something salty? That was a winner, too. The barbecue praram chicken has an array of telltale Thai spices tied together with peanut sauce, which was just the thing we were looking for.

Pad see yew is a good benchmark for how a place handles its noodles. I actually tasted this dish side by side with the pad see yew from Chada Thai and found Bangkok@12 had better-looking broccoli and a comparable flavor to the reliable standard on Broadway. The wide bands of noodles are served slurpy-soft. I would have preferred firmer, but those are hard to come by.

Vegetarian dining is easy at Thai restaurants, especially once you figure out if the establishment is serious about the Western definition of "vegetarian." More than once, I have been told a dish is vegetarian when the base used for the broth or sauce was fish or chicken – as if it was no big deal. Since I will eat nearly everything that doesn't move, that's not a personal concern. But if you're committed to a meatless way of life, ask questions up front wherever you go.

Most of the dishes that I found so appealing with meat at Bangkok@12 also are available in vegetarian form. I say "most" because I cannot help you with the ribs, which I really liked. If you want a riblike, meat-free platter to satisfy your inner Neanderthal, you can probably find it at Andy Nguyen's on Broadway, the charming (and, to some, odd) mecca for vegetarians who like to eat things that appear to be meat (but are actually tofu).

Given its location, Bangkok@12 is a good bet for lunch, when workers at nearby Cal-EPA and City Hall can make the short walk. It serves several lunch specials for $7.95. At dinner, the charm and the quality return, and this place delivers a winning formula.

For best results, arrive with friends, order plenty and share the variety of dishes until the magic, the balance and the exotic but accessible flavors begin to resonate.

Bangkok@12 Thai Restaurant

900 12th St., Sacramento

(916) 443-5588

Hours: 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. daily

Full bar? Beer and wine only

Takeout? Yes

Vegetarian friendly? Yes

Overall: 2 1/2 stars (promising)

The food is noticeably better and the service is quite friendly since new ownership took over the space last year. It appears folks have begun to notice. A reliable place for lunch or dinner with enough options to satisfy all kinds of customers.

Food: 2 1/2 stars (pretty good)

Balanced flavors doesn't mean the food isn't lively. The familiar notes of salty, sweet, sour and hot are offered in all kinds of combinations. Noteworthy dishes include avocado curry, pumpkin curry, barbecue chicken and spicy eggplant.

Service: 3 stars (good)

Friendly and attentive.

Ambience: 3 stars (good)

Nicely remodeled, pleasant surroundings. It's especially charming at night when there is a good crowd.

Value: 3 stars (good)

Thai food is generally a very good buy – large portions, good flavors and plenty of healthy options. Plenty of lunch specials for $7.95 or less. And most dinner entrees are less than $10.