The mark of authentic Thai food is its arresting array of cascading flavors from simple, straightforward ingredients. The best of Thai, indeed, is found in dishes whose flavor sets are layered and complicated, clear and subtle--yet somehow manage to come straight through a fiery red-pepper curtain. Vivid, green lemon grass radiates herbaceous scents; pearly plump sea scallops become as sparklingly distinct as champagne. The result is bracing, nutritious, seemingly decadent yet refreshingly light. It's not an easy thing to achieve.
That's why my hat's off to Tiean Thai Cuisine, a modest little place in a modest little shopping center in Port Hueneme. Great successes abound here, and for my money it's the best Thai food to be found in this region.
First, a word of caution. The keepers of Tiean are keepers of uncompromised recipes, which means hot means hot--and for the uninitiated probably will mean way too hot.
Second, the place is unadorned, so don't plan the kid's birthday party here. Vinyl-covered tables with metal-framed chairs are situated in an otherwise drab atrium space outside the actual restaurant, which has a counter for ordering and a cacophonous steam-clouded kitchen. The consistent good cheer of the staff will warm you, but only go when getting the real thing is more important than amenity.
Soups here are epic, certainly more than enough for two and obviating any need for appetizers. Tom Ka Kai ($5.75) is an astonishing brew that joins sliced chicken with coconut milk, straw mushrooms, lemon grass, lime juice, and cracked red peppers. The flavors are deep, resonant, herbaceous, defined, and fiery--with the luxurious coconut milk acting as balm to the palate. The same dish presented in a hot-and-sour mode is very nearly as satisfying.
These soups, however, served as the heat test on my first visit, as I love hot food and blithely said so when the server asked. I learned the hard way: Alternate spoons of white rice were needed to keep the blowtorch off my lips. In successive visits I would ask for moderate spice and the dish would come out to my liking: merely very hot.
If you do try an appetizer, consider sizzling spinach ($4.95), a misnamed dish in which marinated sliced beef, pork and chicken are mixed in curry and served atop fresh spinach that wilts quickly between a hot plate and a coating of peanut sauce, cucumber and onion. The variegated flavors are clear and pleasing throughout. Or consider the bright squid salad ($5.75), in which starch white pieces of the meat are marinated in a spiced lime concoction and tossed with lemon grass, onion and mint.
While chicken and duck dishes were satisfying, seafood entrees established the kitchen's true reach. Spicy scallops ($7.95) are, for want of another word, transcendent: Large sea scallops are hot-seared briefly in oil, placed artfully upon a mix of fresh cabbages and carrot slivers, and tossed in a gutsy hot chili sauce. The scallops are sugar-sweet within, if anything slightly underdone for tenderness, their delicacy quickly detonated by red pepper fire before being doused altogether by earthy green cabbage. Save the fresh cucumber slice for the close of the meal and understand what the word oasis means.
Spicy scallops and shrimp ($7.95) are similarly cooked but this time tossed with mint leaves, onions, and green peppers in a spicy oyster sauce. Again, the shellfish are perfect; getting shrimp to retain plumpness and tenderness simultaneously with the delicate scallops is no easy thing. The flavors here, however, go for more blur than laser, the sweet seafood melding with deeply flavorsome vegetables.
Garlic pepper squid ($5.95), which sounds hot, isn't, but that's OK. It's a simple, clean dish of squid that's been marinated in black pepper and garlic and served atop fresh lettuce--a cool soother, if you will. Prah-muk-kra-praw ($5.95), however, is the best house treatment of squid, which arrives spiked with slivers of fresh green chili and mint--a clear attempt at achieving classic hot-and-cool flavors without obliterating the fish.
Ginger duck ($6.50) is loaded with chunks of deeply flavored meat tossed with ginger, onions, mushrooms, celery and green onions--a perfectly respectable alternative for the meat eater but slightly muted in flavor range owing to the heaviness of the meat. A better meat choice is Kang-Gai ($4.75), or red curry, with the chicken option. This dense curry carries slow, deep heat--the kind that piles up by accrual--and has an earthiness softened by coconut milk, bamboo shoots, and, of all things, sweet basil.
It's rare that the harshest indictment of a restaurant is that its food might sometimes be deemed merely good, but that's the case with the generally excellent Tiean Thai Cuisine. My only gripe involves a rather mindless gap in service, and I save it till now because it should be so easy to fix.
The eager servers sometimes fail to properly time the delivery of dishes. On more than one occasion, entrees were delivered to my table minutes after the Gargantuan soups were set into place. Now, just as I specify my heat index every time I go, I also explain that I do not wish to see an entree until the appetizers or soups are done and the plates pushed away.
It's true that the staff may at this point have me marked as a crank, but if they do, they always oblige and make me a very happy crank indeed.
* WHAT: Tiean Thai Cuisine.
* WHERE: 273 E. Channel Islands Blvd., Port Hueneme, 382-9855.
* WHEN: Lunch and dinner, continuously, from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, from noon to 10 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.
* FYI: Free delivery on orders of $15 or more within three-mile limit. Dinner for two, food only, $10 to $25.