By Frank Sabatini Jr. | Restaurant Review
Amid the tortilla makers and sombrero shops dotting San Diego Avenue is a new Thai restaurant that puts out little bowls of food near the front door every morning. Don’t assume they’re for the taking. In Asian tradition, the offerings are earmarked for spirits believed to be protecting the property, or in this case, to also ensure that passersby will drop in for angel duck and drunken noodles.
D’O Thai Cottage is the first and only spot for Thai cuisine in Old Town. Located alongside the historic El Campo Santo Cemetery, the white stucco structure formerly housed Café Pacifica, and more recently, an Italian restaurant. Two tiers allow for ample seating beneath an angled wood ceiling strung with white lights, signaling the same cozy ambiance I remember from Café Pacifica’s days.
While explaining to us that the letter “D” in Thai translates to “good,” and that “O” is an insert without meaning to the restaurant’s name, co-owner Kan Timpruskanon points to a menu containing multi-regional dishes from his native Thailand.
Among the standouts is beef stew originating from the southern provinces. The meat and potatoes are draped in luscious massaman curry, which achieves its creaminess from coconut milk. Unless you request it spicy, expect a sweet, tantalizing flavor that tastes enormously more exotic than the stuff our parents served from Crock Pots.
Considerably spicier, but just as delightful, is potak, a kicky seafood soup punctuated by sour notes from lime leaves, lemon grass and galangal. Here, the recipe reveals an oceanic cache of large mussels, shrimp and curly calamari stuffed with the lemon grass. Warm, pastel-colored rice crackers that arrived to our table when we were seated added the right crunch.
Visually dramatic are the “sexy shrimp” spun in crunchy egg noodles and standing upright on skewers supported by a fat slice of raw onion. Known in other Asian restaurants as “shrimp sarong,” this version affords the same amount of pizzazz when chomping through their wild straw-like casings. We especially loved the accompanying soy-based house sauce, which added a sweet and salty essence to the crustaceans.
Garlic, fish sauce and bird’s eye chilies unite in the dipping sauce served with the “crying tiger” dish. The dish typically involves thinly sliced strips of grilled beef fanned over lettuce. At D’O Thai, however, the bar is raised with New York strip as opposed to tougher cuts used elsewhere. The sparks are controlled by how much sauce you apply to the meat, although in Thai tradition, the heat level you decide should be fierce enough to bring tears to a tiger’s eye. Those with sensitive palates might consider the yum nuah salad instead, which combines a tamer lime dressing with flat iron steak and mixed greens.
Fans of duck can choose from three different preparations treated with peanut sauce, spicy curry and pineapple, or honey. We chose the latter, which included about five pieces of juicy meat served over a bed of spinach. The best part was the skins, expertly crisped and shiny from the caramelized honey. Isn’t this half the reason why we order roasted duck in the first place?
We unfortunately didn’t venture into the menu’s seafood specialties, but a return visit will warrant a plunge into the clay-pot steamed mussels with Thai basil or the crispy sea bass crowned with garlic and black pepper sauce. Equally intriguing is a whole “sizzling” chicken marinated and roasted with Thai herbs.
The menu also features dozens of proverbial Thai dishes for those who are forever committed to drunken noodles, pad Thai, the colored curries and fried samosas. While the kitchen covers all bases, the friendly spirits, brought out by the bowls at the front door, see you through an enjoyable dining experience that ends with a freshly sliced mango surrounding a pond of coconut-kissed sticky rice, proving that Old Town isn’t all about burritos anymore.
D’O Thai Cottage
2414 San Diego Ave. (Old Town)
Dinner prices: Appetizers, soups and salads, $3.99 to $12.99; entrees $8.99 to $16.99. Lunch specials, $6.99 to $10.99