Perhaps even more than Indian cooking, Thai cuisine sets a standard for hot spicing that defines the term for the globe.
If some like it hot, the Thais really like it hot , and ordering a dish spiced at the top of their heat scale can be dangerous for anyone not certain of his tolerance for fire in edible form. But, as true as this is, the problem for those who like at least some heat in their food is that most of this county's Thai restaurants, uncertain of their clientele's tastes, serve dishes spiced no more aggressively than American meat loaf. The bland results have nothing to do with the originals and are not worth the time wasted in chewing them.
Bangkok Bay in Solana Beach is one place that has not come to the sorry conclusion that seasonings should be thoroughly suppressed.
This restaurant offers a well-written, fairly inclusive menu of many of the big deals and minor treats in Thai cookery, and by and large sees to it that all the expected flavors are present and accounted for.
The appetizers, with the exception of the barbecued skewers of beef and pork satay , arrive fresh from the deep fryer, and one of these should be sufficient for two guests before moving along to a soup or one of the excellent salads. The starter choices include the inevitable-- and enormously popular--fried crispy noodles in sweet sauce with bean sprouts, chicken and shrimp (considered at a remove, this dish always seems like an exotic rendition of American breakfast cereal); shrimp "suits," rather dull creations of shrimp jacketed in won ton skins; deep-fried tofu in sweet-sour sauce; the house versions of won tons and egg rolls, and Thai-style shrimp toasts. These last are tasty little triumphs, rectangles of bread spread with a paste of pork and shrimp and a slice of whole shrimp, fried until crispy and offered with a sweet dipping sauce that just barely hints at chili heat.
There are 10 soups, some mild and some ragingly hot; in the former category, the silvery noodle soup has a savory garnish of ground pork and vegetables, while a fairly elegant representative of the spicy side of the list is the seafood-coconut milk soup, which packs shrimp, crabs, squid and other sea critters in a broth that is sweet with coconut milk, pungent and sourish with herbs and hot with chilies.
The great thing about Thai salads is the way that cool greens and vegetables are made into effective foils for succulent and frequently spicy garnishes. There is a lovely richness and clarity of flavor to the nam sod salad of ground pork with onions, fresh ginger and cashews, although the clear noodles salad, with similar garnish and flavoring, has a smoother effect and is more substantial.
The kitchen will moderate to taste the spicing of the soups and salads as well as that of the entrees, but is not always entirely consistent, as was proven by the extra (and extra fiery) slivers of fresh green chilies that entered a stir-fry of chicken with mint leaves. Be cautious with these chilies, which to the casual eye look like lengths of green bean, since the effect can, in truth, be quite painful. The stir-fry itself, a fairly simple affair of cubed chicken, sliced onions and scallion tops, and a thin but well-seasoned brown sauce, was flavorful, but the mint leaves that were the supposed star were barely in evidence.
Bangkok Bay follows the practice common among local Thai restaurants of listing styles of preparation, which can be ordered garnished by choice with pork, beef, chicken or shrimp. While this makes for variety, the meats generally are precooked and taste reheated, a fact that removes some of the quality. For example, the beef in Panang curry, a delightful coconut milk-based sauce, was relatively chewy and dry; the sauce itself was delicious, and perfect over the sticky rice that the restaurant offers in unlimited quantity.
Preparation styles include stir-fries with cashew nuts and dried red chilies; green beans and red chili sauce; baby corn and bamboo shoots; vegetables and sweet-sour sauce, and with heavy garlic flavoring and a lettuce garnish. The curry selections include the classic red and green versions, a roast duck curry with peas and carrots, and beef Mussaman, elaborated with peanuts and potatoes.
731 S. Highway 101, Solana Beach
Hours: Lunch and dinner daily
Cost: Entrees from $6.95 to $12.95. Dinner for two, including a glass of wine each, tax and tip, about $25 to $45.