Thai Me Up!

Suriya
1432 Valencia (at 25th Street), 824-6655. Open daily from 5 to 10 p.m. Reservations recommended for weekends and large groups. No credit cards. The restaurant is wheelchair accessible. Parking: fairly easy. Muni via the 26 Valencia and all Mission Street buses. The 24th and Mission BART station is two blocks away.

"Why Suriya?" asked Joey the beanpole pastry-master as Dave drove us south. "Some friends of mine told me it had a lot of great, unusual dishes," I answered. "They mentioned a pumpkin curry they loved. And I haven't reviewed any Thai restaurants yet --" "Really? How come?" Dave asked. "-- precisely because most of their menus are so similar. Thep Phanom's the best and San Francisco Barbecue does something different, but otherwise you keep seeing the same dishes, usually all done pretty well -- so unless they use imitation crab or something, what's there to say? I haven't been to Thailand except two hours changing planes, so my palate's not educated enough to detect subtle nuances." "Didn't you eat anything during those two hours?" TJ asked. "Nah, I didn't want to hassle changing rupees to bahts just to sample airport food."

On plebeian outer Valencia, next to a church of one of the fervid Protestant sects, smack across from a cowboy-clothing store, Suriya proved shockingly beautiful. Named for proprietor Suriya Srithong, the restaurant's ficus trees and bulbous twig-filled vases evoke a temple garden, in a long room subtly partitioned into three intimate dining areas. The window tables are separated from the center tables by two dignified Indian elephants rendered in ebony, each the approximate size of a mature potbellied pig. Pictured pachyderms bedeck one wall, and over the bar on the other side are eight little wooden shelves, holding sculptured wooden animals (dragon, rabbit, etc.), each the size of a Siamese cat, with an iron crank projecting from its mouth -- they're coconut graters, a waiter explained.

The back of the menu urges, "ask for our fine wine list." We did, and it was not so fine, its brutal brevity bereft of GewYrtz, Vouvray, or any other spice-friendly wallet-sparing white. Two of us settled for Siamese Singha beer, the other two chose Thai iced tea, a pleasing R-rated rendition here, with just a modicum of sweetened milk.

But the food menu is as lengthy as the wine list is short, with xeroxed supplements listing specials. There are perhaps fewer stir-fries and more curries (of all colors) than a typical Thai menu, and true to our friends' promise, many choices are unusual or even unique. I didn't notice until too late an entree combining stir-fried pasta, seafood, mushrooms, and dried cranberries, nor a clear soup with a fried egg, sausage, garlic, and a large supporting cast, nor a brandy-spiked green curry, among others. The menu does have the standard asterisk code: one star denotes "Spicy," two mean "Very Spicy," and three indicate "VERY VERY Spicy." However, nothing on the printed menu actually bears the dread sign of the triple asterisk, and only four dishes have even a double star. Now, to save a lot of future verbiage, the story here is: One star actually means "Just a little spicy." Hence, if you've recently returned from Phuket with your gullet all galvanized, remember to tell your waiter (preferably in Thai: "Chai ped, dai prod!") that you want your food extra-hot, please.

We began with a home-style appetizer special, Mieng Kum ($7). Rolling your own, you shape young spinach leaves into little funnels, hold them between thumb and forefinger, and fill them as desired with the contents of the surrounding saucers: diced shrimp, chopped red onion, lemon fragments, minced ginger and green chile, shredded toasted coconut, whole peanuts, and a thick, ebony-colored, sweet fruity sauce touched with red chile paste and walloped with shrimp paste. There were many peanuts, but only as many prawn niblets as there were spinach leaves. "This is cheap for them to make," said Joey, calculating the cost-benefit ratio. "But think of all the dishwashing!" Dave protested. Next up were grilled stuffed mushrooms ($6), with a salty minced prawn and chicken filling, coated with a luscious, just-spicy peanut sauce made with minced dried Thai chiles -- the tiny, oblong phrik leung ("rat poop") peppers. "Forget the mushrooms, I could just eat the sauce," Dave and Joey said almost in unison.

We thought the spiciness level might be ramping up; we were wrong. Our next starter was the single-asterisked Koong Ka Bok ($6), "Shrimp in Their Sleeping Bags." Like Mom's "pigs in a blanket," the juicy marinated prawns wore a wide girdle of pastry -- here, a delicate, greaseless rice-flour batter. A tea saucer held sweet dipping sauce with a touch of citrus flavor and a scattering of hot pepper flakes -- "like a spicy marmalade," TJ said, nailing it. Alongside was a naked, crisp cabbage slaw with whole peanuts. The super-standout starter was Malagaw Tod ($5), green papaya wedges fried in a crunchy multitextured batter of rice flour, sesame seeds, and shredded coconut; they looked like baby octopuses with a skin condition and tasted heavenly. Joey identified the smooth, sweet, ginger-tanged dip: "It's a Chinese sauce that my mother buys in cans; they serve it with roast duck." "Ah, duck sauce!" I teased. (Actually it's plum sauce.) Alongside the fritters was a scrumptious slaw of superfine shredded cabbage and carrots with minced peanuts and a rich sweet dressing reminiscent of mee krob, Siam's puffed rice-noodle extravaganza. "Ooh, I've had green papaya shredded in a salad, of course, but never done this way," Dave rhapsodized. (Suriya offers green papaya salad, too -- served in a crisp noodle basket, just to be different.)

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