Elle's son lives in Thailand, so she is very familiar with the tiny neighborhood restaurants lining the streets of Phuket, serving fresh food made to order, with that homemade feel, for a very few baht.
Thai Pepper has that vibe. Located in one of the many strip malls lining Beach Boulevard, this unpretentious little restaurant advertises itself as a fast food take-out place with everything made to order. But because everything is made to order, it can't be fast but it can be and is good.
While the restaurant does a thriving take-out business, you can also eat on the premises accompanied by the rhythmic chopping of cleavers and clacking of pots and pans. The décor, to put it mildly, is unprepossessing, but the food and the price make it worth a visit.
This Thai restaurant also features a lot of Chinese dishes, but we came for the highly recommended Thai food.
We started with coconut chicken soup and, like all soups on the menu, it can be ordered in small or large portions. Our waitress asked us how spicy we liked our food and suggested that we start with level three (out of 10) because you can always add heat but can't subtract it.
Actually, it turned out to be the perfect choice for us, spicy but not mouth searing. The delicious, slightly sweet coconut milk broth was flavored with hints of tartness from lemon grass and lime leaf and herby undertones from cilantro. The soup was replete with straw mushrooms and pieces of chicken breast. It was an excellent version of this classic soup.
Equally tasty was the spicy shrimp salad. The tail-on seafood dusted with red chili and perfectly grilled was notably fresh tasting. The crispy romaine, cabbage, red onions and carrots were bathed in Thai lime dressing that had been kicked up with additional red chili. This was probably the hottest dish we had but still pleasing to our palates.
Rather than yet another version of pad Thai, for our noodle dish we chose pad kee mow, thinly sliced beef marinated and stir fried with 1-inch pieces of wide rice noodles, Thai basil, tomatoes and mung bean sprouts. The tender beef had a subtle underpinning of dark spices that imparted flavor to the entire dish. We especially loved the soft chewy noodles that soaked up the delectable seasonings.
Another lovely dish was the yellow chicken curry, which, like many menu offerings, can be ordered with chicken, pork or tofu. If you choose beef or shrimp, it will set you back an extra dollar. Central Thai curries characteristically feature coconut milk and aromatic spices such as lemongrass, lime leaf and galingale (similar to ginger).
Thai Pepper's version was a bit sweeter and more subtle than many we've tasted and we enjoyed it very much. The chicken breast was tender but some of the potatoes, a typical ingredient in this curry, were somewhat under cooked. To fully enjoy a curry, you must yum up the sauce with rice and we did, savoring every last drop of it.
The one dish we didn't care for was the barbecue chicken, which appears on the House Special Menu of dinners served all day. All these come with an egg roll, salad and shrimp fried rice for $8.95. We love Thai barbecue chicken, but we were a little leery of ordering it since they couldn't possibly cook it to order. The bird turned out to be reheated and dry as well as minimally seasoned.
There are also many classic Chinese preparations on the menu, but we'll have to come back some other time to try those.
Thai Pepper serves some excellent food but if you want atmosphere, order take-out. Either way it's a real bargain.
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.
Contact: (714) 843-9818 or thaipepper.net
Where: 18023 Beach Blvd., Huntington Beach
When: 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday and Wednesday through Saturday, 4 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday
Appetizers: $3.95 to $8.45
Salads: $6.95 to $7.50
Soups: small $5.45 to $5.75, large $6.50 to $10.95
Entrées: $6.75 to $11.95