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The Art of Eating 

Fabulous, inexpensive Thai food whose only flaw is its speedy arrival (and consumption)

Wednesday, Mar 30 2005
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Something recently came into my mailbox that seemed eerily apt, seeing as I was thinking about Chinese and Thai food: a press release whose headline read "2005 Poised to Be Year of the Asian Cuisine, According to New Report." The fortuitous timing led me to read further, despite the apparent syntax error in its brief headline (surely it should be "Asian Cuisine," not "the Asian Cuisine"?). Maybe it was a subtle play on words, a witty allusion to Chinese astrology, meant to echo the rhythm of, say, the Year of the Rat. Still, if the report identified just one Asian cuisine making its mark in 2005, that would be interesting, too.

Hedging its bets by pointing out, "Spanish and Latin ingredients are still hot, while Caribbean has slowed somewhat," this market-research pitch fearlessly predicted, "Asian cuisines ... take center stage, with the flavors and spices of India becoming more prominent." Pausing briefly to list fruit as an ingredient trend ("pomegranate; tamarind; Asian fruits yuzu, kaffir lime, and lychee; and berries with health benefits including guarana, acai, and goji berry") and mentioning in passing the ever-popular umami, the Asian "fifth taste" (joining sweet, salty, bitter, and sour) that covers savory, the release stopped me dead in my tracks -- just as I was trying to remember if I'd ever run across guarana, acai, and goji berry on any menus -- by revealing that to access more of these fascinating prognostications would cost me $1,195. My interest in the report, however new it might be, ended abruptly.

I went back to thinking in my own, nonprognosticating way about Chinese and Thai food, or rather two artful recent meals, one not so Chinese, though it offered the option of sitting in entirely Chinese surroundings, and the other quintessentially Thai, consumed in a modern urban room with no obvious Asian cues other than the aromatic stir-fries covering every table. Joyce and I had traveled to the de Young Art Center, on the corner of Irving and 26th Avenue, to sample one of the artists' installations that comprised "Fog Food," four weeklong takes on restaurants in which food (takeout from the many ethnic restaurants and delis that line Irving) could be consumed, along with other things. In the first week, for example, diners got two menus, one of food and one of videos (with which to choose what they would watch on a ceiling-hung TV); in the second week, participants played games of chance and skill, and the winners got free food.

Joyce and I were instantly charmed by the special seating constructed just for the third week, booths made to look like the iconic Chinese takeout box, with red pagodas on the sides and "Thank You" in that old-fashioned mock-Asian font on the folded-down tops. (I immediately thought of the set for the discarded second-act opener of Moss Hart's Once in a Lifetime, a restaurant called the Pigeon's Egg in which patrons sat in booths made to look like cracked eggs.) Alas, there were only two of the chic booths, and both were occupied, forcing us to sit on stools at a metal table, where artist Mads Lynnerup was taking orders (from a menu written in Danish, with some obvious dishes -- vegetar kombination nuddelsuppe, flamberet banan med honing -- and some less so -- gulerøds kage, kokos kyllingesuppe). Lynnerup then phoned diners' choices in to the appropriate local restaurant (no Chinese available; it was replaced by the now more ubiquitous Thai), sent his assistant on a bike to pick them up, dished out the food when it arrived, and wrote up as many checks as he could. He was a full-service artist.

It was immediately clear that our usual restaurant expectations were not going to be met by this charming, fly-by-night operation. Since it was art, and we knew we were participating in a performance piece, we relaxed and let ourselves be charmed by the restaurant theater: watching new arrivals size up the situation, leave to pick up their own takeout, and return to perch on folding chairs and hang out; savoring the inevitable mishaps and delays ("No, you were supposed to pick up two kebab plates"); mentally totaling up our own check and leaving more than enough to cover it, just as I had that time when I had to catch a bus in Yugoslavia and the bill hadn't arrived despite three requests.

We intended to stroll around the neighborhood and check out the establishments that had actually cooked the kebab plate, ham sandwich, and vegetables on rice we'd eaten, but time had run out. So instead I wandered from an ephemeral, not-really-a-restaurant that you can no longer go to (even if you had the time) to another place, a real restaurant that everybody should go to, and where my only regret was the speed with which our dishes arrived (and were consumed, although that's obviously a good thing; but I like to linger over a delicious, interesting, and exciting meal). I should have known from the place's very name, Thai House Express, that rapidity was part of the deal, but I hadn't thought it through as Peter, Anita, and I trudged up Larkin to the restaurant. We passed a brightly lit gallery full of brightly colored art; an opening of sorts seemed to be in progress, but we were right on time to meet Robert.

In fact, we walked in just behind him, as he was being led to a sleek metal-topped table, and surprised him by slipping into our seats before he turned around to take his. I urged overordering on my pals; there were lots of unfamiliar dishes as well as the expected tom kha gai and larb, and I was eager to experiment. Peter suggested gui chai, described as crispy chive cakes. Robert plumped for the minced duck meat special ("It's always on the board, every time I come here") and the soop nor mai (bamboo shoot salad), as well as the som tun thai (green papaya salad) we'd decided was essential. My eyes were immediately drawn to the kao kao moo, called "special pork leg stew," and the pla muk gra-tiem (sautéed squid). We threw in an order of pad thai and another of sautéed eggplant just as our server was about to leave; I was going to add kao pad nam (fried rice with spicy cured sausage, egg, Chinese broccoli, and onions), but he forestalled me by saying, "You've ordered a lot of food." I noticed that most of the diners around us were each ordering a single dish over rice; we'd chosen the a la carte option, with a group order of rice.

Within a few minutes, our tabletop was covered with extraordinarily beautiful, colorful dishes; we pulled up an extra chair, to serve as a resting place for the silver tureen of rice. We should have deployed another chair for the Lazy Susan filled with containers of varying hot sauces, fish sauce, and sesame oil, but instead a server removed it to a neighboring table, to make space for the glorious food. The shredded green papaya salad, a very peppery, hot version, was soaked in chili-spiked lemon juice and full of green beans, slivered tomato, chopped peanuts, and tiny dried shrimp. The bamboo shoot salad, the tangled strips colored a pale green with herbs, had an ineffable, slightly sour whiff about it; when we questioned another server about what made it pungent and ever-so-slightly fetid (a touch of asfoetida, perhaps, one of the "flavors and spices of India"?), she said that the fresh bamboo shoots were steeped in water with herbs and spices. "Pickled?" we asked. "Not exactly." But the barely crunchy, translucent green vegetable we picked out of the fabulous, succulent, anise-scented shredded pork leg stew ("Five-spice carnitas," Peter said) was identified for us as pickled mustard greens. This dish will haunt me. I'll never be able to have a meal here without a plate of this on the table.

It's a good thing I love crunchy raw red onion; about a third of the dishes, including the minced-duck salad, were topped with lots of it. I also love squid, here served curled up into plump ivory shells, sautéed with lots of garlic and vegetables, including cabbage, tomato, green pepper, cucumber, and onions. The sautéed eggplant, in rosy and purple wedges, was sweet and nicely oily. The chive cakes, perfect spherical discs that looked solid but proved, on biting into them, to be hollow and lined with a juicy layer of supple, bright-green sautéed chives, were a little chewy and much lighter than they appeared. Peter had hoped for a dish like the chive-coconut patties served at the famous Thai Temple brunch in Berkeley, but these were also wonderful, washed down with Tsing Ha beer drunk from small Tsing Ha tumblers. (The constantly replenished ice water came in weighty Tsing Ha beer steins.) I drank coconut-palm juice, which tasted like a cookie.

The only disappointment was the pad thai, which seemed boring even after all of its disparate elements (rice noodles, shrimp, egg, tofu, bean sprouts) had been well stirred and anointed with condiments from the Lazy Susan. The chopped peanuts had mysteriously gone missing. But we'd had a superb meal, as good as any I've ever had in a Thai place, including ones with considerably more pretensions. After such a stellar dinner, every dish on the menu looked enticing to me. "Everything here is fresh and homemade," our server said when we complimented him.

We were slightly sorry that we'd eaten rather rapidly; even though I love a table covered with dishes, we decided that on our next visit we'd order in two flights. We lingered -- over plates of fried bananas with vanilla ice cream and sticky rice topped with thin slices of firm custard -- in the dining room, which combines fancy elements (a sleek blond-wood banquette running the length of one wall under a few abstract paintings, a combination that reads "stylish midpriced urban bistro" rather than "inexpensive ethnic spot") with more mundane ones (the open kitchen, reminiscent of a short-order diner, and signs warning "Restrooms are for customers only" and "$10 minimum for credit card use").

People still wandered around the art gallery as we walked by, but the safety gates had been drawn across two of the three doors, and the folks inside discouraged us from joining them when we tried to squeeze through the third ("The curator isn't here right now"). We'd had such an artful meal that I didn't even mind.

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