Thai cooking, with its scalding fresh chilies, handfuls of green and opal basils and sweet undertones of coconut milk, would seem one of the bastions against standardization. It is nothing less than a scandal when it, too, falls prostrate before the American urge to homogenize.
The process has taken place at Taste of Thai in Hillcrest, where many of the dishes seem no more exotic than the hot dogs hawked at Padres games.
It is a pretty restaurant--Thai restaurateurs in San Diego seem to have a flair for designing cool, attractive spaces in which to serve what usually is a hot, heady cuisine. The location, on University Avenue in Hillcrest, also seems just right, since Thai is trendy at present and Hillcrest is about as trendy as San Diego gets. Snippets of conversations overheard from nearby tables are less about real estate prices than get-away trips to Third World destinations.
Main Street Menu
The menu, however, is more Main Street than Third World, and a dish of choochi curry eaten with closed eyes will not provide the imagination with instant transport to a Bangkok klong . The bulk of the menu is a depressing roster of mix-and-match options that seems to have been designed not by a chef but by a graduate of the P. T. Barnum School of Marketing. Even a cursory examination of the menu gives the impression that the kitchen is organized on an assembly-line principle. The entree list begins by mentioning chicken, roast pork, beef, roast duck, shrimp, squid, scallops and a vegetable medley, not as dishes but as main ingredients to be matched at will with one of 13 sauces from the following list. In other words, any of these main ingredients can be had with red, green or yellow curry sauces, or with garlic-pepper sauce, or in a sweet-spicy finish, or sweet-and-sour, or with ginger, or cashew nuts or fresh basil.
Presumably, all the cooks need do is fish the selected meat or seafood out of a bin and dress it with sauce ladled from the appropriate pot. This seems not unlike spreading a hamburger with one's choice of ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise or Thousand Island dressing.
The kitchen evidently does pair already cooked meats with ready-made sauces. Under the specialties heading, for example, the menu lists "crispy duck," which it says is a "half duck topped with sweet spicy curry paste." This listing is followed by one for "spicy duck," which it describes as "half crispy duck topped with sweet spicy curry paste." This would seem to be the same critter. The spicy duck was ordered, and it was an awkward and embarrassed bird, one that apparently had spent much of the day cooling its heels (it certainly wasn't warm) waiting to be spread with a bit of sauce that was about as spicy as a copy of Popular Mechanics.
Roast pork in yellow curry sauce had a little more to recommend it, because the sauce actually seemed to have been invested with a little spice, along with chunks of carrot and potato. Just like the duck, however, the pork had the tough and somewhat greasy quality common to reheated meat, which definitely is one of the drawbacks of this mix-and-match approach to restaurant cooking.
Shrimp ordered in the "hot-basil" style, which the menu described as supplemented with green pepper, chili and garlic, was not the searing and explosive preparation that this dish can be. It was so nondescript and so essentially non-Thai-seeming, in fact, that were it served at a Midwestern Sunday School picnic, some of the participants would find it little more remarkable than the baked beans and macaroni salad.
This point of view was mentioned to one of the restaurant's managers, who responded, "Well, it's very subjective. If you want it hot, you have to say so. We try to standardize everything."
Standardization is, of course, playing to the lowest common denominator, and we get enough of that on television and in political campaigns. If a menu says "hot," that's what we expect, and the whole point of going to an ethnic restaurant would seem to be to get something out of the ordinary, out of the mainstream and beyond the daily experience. When that stops being true, the American melting pot will seem to have melted down, and we all might as well pop something frozen into the microwave and spend the time saved from dining on other pursuits.
The appetizer list includes the typical stand-bys, including beef and chicken satay skewers served with a moderately spiced peanut sauce and a nice cucumber salad. The spring rolls, which are about half the size of an adult's little finger, are advertised as containing ground shrimp and chicken along with cabbage and "grass" noodles, but what one sees and tastes are slivered vegetables. The accompanying sauce is hot with cayenne, but not subtle.
Soups again are available on a mix-and-match basis, with one's choice of chicken, beef, shrimp, squid or vegetables prepared tom-yum (in broth flavored with lemon grass, mushrooms, chilies and lime juice) or tom-khar (enriched with coconut milk and pungent galanga root). Salads follow the same principle, and the yum salad is a fairly good blend of cucumbers, tomatoes and greens dressed with sweetened vinegar, chopped peanuts and a choice of seafood or sliced steak.
Among other dishes are noodles, fried rices, several seafood specials (the "Thai boat" steams scallops, shrimp, fish filets, squid, white wine and herbs in foil) and the eternally popular mee krob , the crisp noodles that probably did more to popularize Thai cooking in this country than any other 10 dishes combined. Sweet, and so delicate that they almost shatter at a glance, Taste of Thai's presentation of these noodles is fairly standard, except that it garnishes them with dried shrimp rather than fresh. The flavor of this kind of shrimp, which appears often in Oriental cooking, is pungent and anchovy-like.
DAVID NELSON ON RESTAURANTS
* TASTE OF THAI
527 University Ave.
Lunch Monday through Saturday; dinner nightly.
Credit cards accepted.
Dinner for two, including a glass of wine each, tax and tip, $20 to $40.