The Art of Eating

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

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.

Quick Cuisine: The dishes come out fast at 
Thai House Express, but that doesn't 
detract from their quality.
Anthony Pidgeon
Quick Cuisine: The dishes come out fast at Thai House Express, but that doesn't detract from their quality.

Location Info

Map

Thai House Express

901 Larkin
San Francisco, CA 94109

Category: Restaurant > Thai

Region: Hayes Valley/ Tenderloin

Thai House Express

599 Castro
San Francisco, CA 94114

Category: Restaurant > Asian

Region: Castro/ Noe Valley

Details

Chive cakes $5.95

Papaya salad $6.50

Bamboo shoot salad $6.25

Pork leg stew $8.25

Sautéed squid $9.95

Sautéed eggplant $7.95

Coconut-palm juice $2

441-2248

Open Sunday through Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m., Friday and Saturday until 2 a.m.

Reservations accepted

Wheelchair accessible

Parking: difficult during the day, easy at night

Muni: 19, 38

Noise level: moderate

901 Larkin (at Geary)

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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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