The tiny eatery Laguna Thai by the Sea has had a face lift this past year and added bamboo wainscoting and more mobile-type paper decorations swinging in the breeze, but the major new addition is a fancy wood, floor-to-ceiling wine cabinet that dominates the small room. "A" (as he is called), the chef-owner, is really into wine. He's also a jazz buff, and if you're lucky, you'll hear some really good standards mixed in with the Thai pop.
There's a cozy patio with several tables and the surrounding foliage helps separate it from South Coast Highway. It's especially pleasant to dine there on a warm summer night.
Inside, the soft-drink case is still the first thing to greet your eye. Next, you are welcomed by one of their sweet waitresses and seated at a table covered with a red cloth topped with butcher paper. The décor is simple, and the place is small, but there is a busy take-out business as well.
We had not been at Thai by the Sea for quite a while, but the tom yum soup is as yummy as ever. This spicy lemongrass and shrimp broth is balanced with lime juice, fish sauce and a hint of sugar. Tossed in at the end are cabbage, celery, cherry tomatoes and a few shrimp for a fresh and crunchy finish.
We still remember the delicious geow za (usually spelled gyoza) from our last visit. These appetizer dumplings were much less tasty this time. The chicken mixture was more scant and barely seasoned. To compound the problem, the dipping sauce was not thick enough to stick to the dough wrappers and add any flavor. They are obviously using a different purveyor.
Fried tofu sticks had a nice crust, but neither the crust nor the interior had any seasoning, and the tofu wasn't plump and juicy. The mild sweet-and-sour dipping sauce topped with chopped peanuts was also too thin.
Much better was the yellow curry. You have a choice of proteins, and we selected chicken. The complex coconut-milk sauce contains a long list of spices: cumin, coriander, nutmeg, galangal-ginger and lime leaves to name a few. There is sweetness and heat, although ours was on the mild side even though we ordered it medium spicy. This type of curry also contains potatoes, and here they've added cherry tomatoes. It was a very well-balanced and flavorful dish.
Laguna Thai provides a lovely tray with little ceramic pots of condiments. These include green chilies in fish sauce (a thin salty sauce made from anchovies), green chilies in vinegar, crushed red-pepper flakes and red chili sauce. These are pretty powerful, so take a tiny taste before adding too much.
We got some serious heat from the drunken noodles (pad kee mao), without the aid of the condiment tray. Alternatively, this preparation can be ordered with rice. The stir-fry has oodles of chicken and shrimp (we skipped the pork) and veggies, but very few wide rice noodles considering it is advertised as a noodle dish. They were really good, and we went hunting through the mountain of food for more of them. The sauce was a spicy mixture of seasonings highlighted by lots of Thai basil, which gives it a unique flavor.
The sauce for A's pad Thai is luscious, and the sweet shrimp, tofu bits, scrambled egg and crunchy peanuts were tasty, but he is using a very thin noodle that simply doesn't hold up and was very soft and soggy. We were surprised because we've always had pad Thai with a wider, linguine-like rice noodle. This bigger noodle is able to stay chewy and firmer.
For something lighter, their excellent salads are generous enough to make a meal on their own. Lots of veggies and lettuce are tossed in a spicy, sweet lime dressing. Yum gai has an ample portion of sliced chicken breast, cashews and peanuts. Yum talay is chock full of seafood and yum nue features grilled slices of steak.
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.
If You Go
What: Laguna Thai by the Sea
Information: (949) 415-0924 or lagunathai.com
Where: 31715 S. Coast Hwy.
When: Lunch: noon to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner: 5 to 9 p.m. daily
Appetizers: $5.95 to $9.95
Entrées: $10.95 to $13.95
Glass: $7 to $14
Bottle: $22 to $225
Corkage Fee: $15