We were on our way to dine at a restaurant in the Quail Hill Shopping Center in Irvine, but when we arrived, we discovered it was packed, so we wandered around the center and came across a sweet little Thai place called Thai Bamboo Bistro.
This casual restaurant has a pleasing décor. The ceiling has been lowered with the use of a floating bamboo lattice. There is attractive stone tile wainscoting around the room and soft lighting from small hanging fixtures. Attractive, tilted wood-framed mirrors line the wall on one side of the room.
In general, we thought the food was less spicy than in most Thai restaurants. We found that the little red chili symbols, indicating heat, next to a menu item could not be relied on, so we had to resort to the condiment tray for heat. Only after we finished our meal did we see the notice on the bottom of the lunch menu saying we could request a level of heat on any of the dishes.
We began with angel wings, which turned out to be the biggest we've ever seen. These were made from ground chicken meat, cellophane noodles and green onions, lightly seasoned, then battered and deep-fried. The only evidence of the wing bone itself was the boney tip. Traditionally the bones are left intact after the chicken is scraped off them and the skin is wrapped around the stuffing. What we ate was a lot easier to prepare and had a lot more to it. The coating was dark golden brown and very crunchy. The accompanying sweet sauce added a lot of flavor, and we zipped it up a bit with the red chili sauce on the condiment tray.
Thai Bamboo Bistro's version of traditional coconut milk soup with chicken was light but especially flavorful and complex. Subtle undertones of galangal (a type of ginger), lemon grass and kaffir lime leaves provided the perfectly balanced seasoning. The restaurant uses the best quality coconut milk and mixes it with chicken broth and adds an extremely generous amount of sliced chicken breast, as well as sliced mushrooms and bamboo shoots.
Fried tofu in peanut sauce on a bed of spinach was another excellent version of a popular Thai entrée, this time a vegetarian dish. The tofu triangles had been deep fried to dark golden brown (no batter), served on a mound of sautéed spinach and topped with a unique and delicious peanut sauce. It was rich and creamy with less peanut-y taste but still especially flavorful, although not spicy. The garnishes were shredded carrots and radish. Once again, the portion was quite generous.
Pad Thai was a little different from the usual because it had very few mung bean sprouts and no shredded carrots to mix with the thin, flat rice noodles, which were on the soft side. Some crunch would have been welcome. What it did have were bits of chicken, shrimp, tofu, scrambled egg, onion and crushed peanuts, all in a mild sweet and sour sauce. We should have requested a higher level of spiciness, but we didn't realize it was an option, so once again, we added some heat from the condiment tray.
Our final selection was crispy shrimp in tamarind sauce. The nice-sized shrimp had a somewhat soggy coating and came with a sweet, slightly tart sauce. It was rounded out with a vegetable mixture of sautéed onions, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, baby corn and tomatoes.
We passed on the only dessert that night, mango and sticky rice.
We were happy to have discovered Thai Bamboo Bistro, a very pleasant neighborhood restaurant. The food is good, the prices are right and the staff is very warm and gracious. It seems to do a busy takeout business as well.
ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ were in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thai Bamboo Bistro
Where: 6715 Quail Hill Parkway
When: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, noon to 9:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Appetizers: $5 to $14
Entrées: $8 to $20
Glass: $5 to $8
Bottle: $18 to $28
Corkage fee: $10