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It's rare that I've eaten in Thai restaurants that have exploded my idea of what Thai food is, introducing me to exciting dishes as good as anything I've ever eaten anywhere. For years, decades even, Thai menus in America offered a list of preparations — stir-fried with basil, garlic and pepper, or ginger; stewed in red, green, or yellow curry — that you could order with your choice of meat, fowl, or seafood. The idea that nothing changed except the protein was less than inspiring. Classic Thai food is supposed to balance spicy, sour, sweet, and salty in each dish, but the general impression would be sweetish, with nam pla (fish sauce) seasoning almost everything. In addition, there'd be some appetizers (often including satay), salads (including the dependable larb, minced pork or chicken in a spicy lime dressing), soups (equally dependable: tom kha gai, the coconut-milk soup with chicken, lemongrass, and kaffir lime leaves), and noodles (pad thai, rice noodles topped with fresh herbs and chopped peanuts).
You could certainly assemble a pleasant meal, but it wouldn't be one that would make you grab somebody by the lapels and say, "You must go to XYZ Thai and order the pad kra prow moo krob!" (There are a few exceptions: Thai House Express, where the anise-scented kao ka moo, aka special pork leg stew, is extraordinary; Marnee Thai, with its fragile corn cakes and delicate pan-fried halibut; and Chai Thai Noodles in Oakland, for its kao ka moo and another roast pork dish, kao moo dang.)
And now I'm going to grab you by the lapels and tell you that my new favorite Thai place in the city is Lers Ros, exactly six months old, in the Tenderloin/Civic Center area known as Little Saigon for its plethora of Vietnamese restaurants. Pad kra prow moo krob was indeed my favorite dish of everything I sampled over two meals: an extravagant serving of chewy pork belly ($6.95 served over rice, $7.25 à la carte), carefully cut in precise chunky rectangles, stir-fried with basil, and served in a thin, spicy brown sauce with strips of sweet red bell pepper.
San Francisco, CA 94109
Region: Hayes Valley/ Tenderloin
At that first dinner at Lers Ros, there was another succulent pork dish, kao kha moo ($6.95/$7.95), long-stewed pork perfumed with five-spice (cloves, cinnamon, fennel seeds, peppercorns, and star anise), with mustard greens and Chinese broccoli, served with a dipping sauce of chile and vinegar. We wanted to try the shredded green papaya salad ($7.25) with raw crab, but were told the crab was out of season, so we had it with soft chunks of salted egg instead, an interesting textural mix with the crisp papaya, red bell peppers, and sliced tomato, in a sharp lime dressing.
From the brief list of specials chalked on a blackboard, we chose thinly sliced mild and sweet pig's liver ($7.95), with plenty of wilted greens and crisp crescents of raw red onion. A separate laminated menu of specials yielded garlic and pepper rabbit ($15.95), fried nuggets of tender white flesh on the bone, served with a bright-red chile sauce on the side. The spectacular pla trout tod nam pla ($12.95) a whole trout marinated in fish sauce, flash-fried so the skin was crisp and browned and the meat still moist, white, and sweet, was served with a bowl of mango sauce on the side. It was truly an astonishing dish.
When we returned, my sorrow at not reordering almost everything I'd tried was mitigated by the fact that Lers Ros' basic menu offers 114 numbered dishes. We were even more pleased with our first three dishes on this visit. Our green papaya salad ($7.25) was enhanced with four large grilled shrimp. Koh moo yang ($7.25), thick slices of grilled pork shoulder, was described as "smoky and tasty!," but I found the chewy meat itself a little bland, improved mightily by its spicy dipping sauce of chile and rice powder topped with cilantro leaves. The best of our three starters was the garlic frog ($7.95), small, tender, mildly fishy chunks still on the bone, served with the same bright red chile sauce as the rabbit had been. "Somebody back there is great with a cleaver," I said, because both rabbits and frogs have splintery little bones that require serious chopping skills.
Somebody back there is also great with presentation, garnishing dishes with carved cucumber, cabbage, and lots of fresh cilantro. We've heard the name Tom Silargorn as head chef, but our servers said there was a rotating roster of two to four chefs, depending on the day and hour. Their divine touch with fish, as demonstrated with the trout, was apparent in a totally different style: pla kra pong nuang manow, steamed fresh whole sea bass ($15.95) stuffed with lengths of lemongrass in a light broth sparked with lots of sliced garlic and cilantro, worthy of being served at the multistarred N.Y.C. fish palace Le Bernardin.
Kao mun kai ($6.95), rather bland sliced, steamed chicken served over garlic and ginger rice, came with a thick ginger–soybean paste sauce that I found insufficiently gingery, and a bowl of full-flavored clear chicken broth. Much better were the rich falling-apart chunks of kao na phed, five-spice duck ($7.25) served over rice with a clear chile and vinegar dipping sauce; much, much better was kang kharee ($7.95), a thick yellow coconut milk curry with prawns, full of potatoes, sliced onions, and carved carrot slices.
That night we were too full for dessert. The fried bananas with coconut ice cream ($4.50) we had after the first meal were decent, but superfluous. I'd had a second Thai iced coffee ($2), because Lers Ros' version is superb, but I knew I was vibrating more from the exciting food than the caffeine. And, unbelievably, Lers Ros is open until 2 a.m. every day. Whenever you go — order the pad kra prow moo krob.