When it comes to Thai food in San Francisco, the crunch of the rice powder, the lime-infused spice of a dipping sauce, or the chewiness of a pad see ew noodle seem somehow difficult to replicate outside of the Tenderloin. It's time to kiss the days of Pad Thai goodbye. You're ready. Go to Thai House Express and order catfish salad (Yum Pla Dook Foo, $10). Get it medium-spicy so that the heat doesn't overpower the flavor (or your ability to eat more than a few bites).
The catfish salad is all about crispness. Julienned green apples and a few red peppers sit atop a bed of chilled and finely shredded iceberg lettuce. Roasted cashews scattered on top give a deeper crunch. You can recognize when a catfish salad is prepared correctly by how thinly the ingredients that form the throne for the catfish are chopped. The dressing is brought on the side so that the salad can be eaten right after it is dressed, before the lettuce gets a chance to soften. The dressing is a complex mixture of classic Thai ingredients like lime, cilantro, fish sauce, sugar, and chiles to create an emulsion of flavor so delicious you'll be tempted to lap remnants up from the plate. Pour the dressing over your salad and mix it thoroughly, but gently, to avoid breaking the fish into small pieces.
Catfish salad is a unique experience both in flavor and texture. The puffs of catfish have been deep fried, but there is nothing oily about them. The lacy flesh collapses in your mouth, as it somehow seems to melt and maintain its crunch at the same time. As the spice creeps up on the tangy sweetness, this dish could not be further from the familiar fries of the American South, or anything else we've tried before.