Dining on the Thai-Californian border
By Richard Foss
“Thailand has five major culinary regions, each of which has separate ecosystems and cultural influences,” explained my host in the city of Chiangmai. “The Northwest, Northeast, South, the capital region around Bangkok and California.”
There was something odd about one of those, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Wait, California? Yes, he explained, the Los Angeles Thai community had come up with so many recipes that restaurants have opened in Thailand serving California-style Thai food. Locals consider it a foreign cuisine and enjoy the novelty.
Traditional regional Thai food used to be a hard sell in California outside the Thai community; it was not only very peppery, it also had sharp and sour flavors that took some getting used to. California Thai cuisine leaves those flavors out, but adds in lettuce salads, vegetables like avocado and zucchini, and items borrowed from Japanese and Chinese cuisine cooked Thai style.
You can try this cuisine at Thai Talay on Lincoln Boulevard in Westchester, a particularly stylish place that makes no attempt to look like a traditional restaurant. There are no images of Buddha or picturesque scenes of monasteries here; instead the black walls and modern lighting are accented with artful modern pottery on shelves.
The menu is a little short on descriptions, with many different items just described as being in “spicy sauce,” but our server was both patient and fluent, so ordering wasn’t a problem.
I was with a large party so we had a chance to taste many items, starting with appetizers of soups and larb, sautéed spiced ground chicken. In Northeast Thailand where this dish originated, it has a hefty dose of pungent fish sauce and can be very sour and spicy; Thai Talay’s version has some heat to it and a moderate dose of fish sauce, but the chili and black pepper is modified with citrus, herbs, and chopped onion. The romaine lettuce that came with it is an all-American addition and allows this to be eaten like a lettuce cup, at least in theory – more fell off than stayed on the leaves.
I tried two soups – lemongrass with seafood and wonton with chicken and shrimp. The wonton had much more meat in it than would be traditional in Thailand – another signature of this cuisine – and was actually the more interesting of the two thanks to a slight smoky, woody flavor. Thailand shares a long border and thousands of years of history with China so there are plenty of cross-cultural influences, and in this case the subtle shading on a traditional dish worked nicely.
We ordered eight entrees, some of which were very conventional, some unusual. The yellow curry chicken, Panang curry, and noodles in an assertive red curry sauce were pleasant but not outstanding, while the pork with spicy basil was unusually good, a mild version of what is usually one of the hotter items in Thai cuisine.
The person who ordered this asked for the least hot version, knowing that Thai chefs deploy a pungent variety in quantities that can leave you gasping. In this case the boldness of the basil with chili and garlic conveyed the balance of what is usually a much hotter dish. When I return to this restaurant I’m more likely to order it kicked up several notches, but I liked the tame version too.
We also tried shrimp with black pepper and garlic, an item that is usually deliberately moist, the slightly oily seafood topped with crumbled fried garlic. The version here was a surprise; the shrimp was apparently coated with a spice mix before being fried with very little oil, then fried with finely chopped cabbage just before serving. It was so different from the usual dish that any comparison was difficult, but on its own merits it was a success.
I was divided with my companions over a few items. The ginger sauce on the Chilean sea bass had an excellent flavor but I thought it overwhelmed the seafood; I wished I could have had it on the side so I could have tasted more of the natural fish. Another item, Thai-style orange chicken, wasn’t to my taste – the grilled chicken meatballs were dry inside, and the sweet and mildly spicy sauce didn’t make up for it. It was an aberration, because otherwise, the cooking was very solid.
Our bill for two with non-alcoholic beverages ran $55 per couple including tip – reasonable for very good meals in a stylish environment. There is more to California-style Thai food than just moderating the spice levels; there is some creativity and playfulness in combining flavors, and Thai Talay is a good place to explore the style.
Thai Talay is at 8411 Lincoln Blvd. in Westchester. Open daily 11 a.m. – 10 p.m. (310) 670-3055. Parking in rear, beer and wine served. Wheelchair access good, kids OK. Menu at TheThaiTalay.com.