By Frank Sabatini Jr. | Restaurant Review
Khwanta Osanai is exposing fans of Thai food to the street foods of Thailand in her debut restaurant, Soi 30th in North Park. If you’re on the hunt for pad Thai and drunken noodles in their most pedestrian form, you’ve (fortunately) come to the wrong place.
Osanai is from Thailand’s northeastern Isaan Province, where fiery chilies grow at the drop of a seed. But her food isn’t drastically spicy. Nor is it necessarily indicative of Isaan.
“Mine is street food from all over Thailand. And I make it in my own style — not for American tastes,” Osanai said, adding that she is proud of finally opening her own kitchen after working at other local Thai restaurants such as Plumeria and Sab-E-Lee.
Certain standbys, however, play into the bill of fare. Tom kha soup boasted gobble-worthy leaves of fresh par-cooked cabbage and a worthy zing from kaffir lime leaves. Her spicy chicken wings struck a commendable balance of sweet and hot, although they hardly came close to five-alarm fire.
Shrimp wraps and vegan egg rolls fall into the usual category of fried items, yet both were non-greasy and clean-tasting.
Other starters include some rare finds such as Thai beef jerky; fried pork belly with creamy mint sauce; and one of the menu’s few Isaan specialties: sausage made with pork and glass noodles.
Visiting as a threesome, we proceeded to a trio of terrific entrees that included a newly introduced daily special called seafood pad pom kali. Rarely do you find dairy incorporated into Thai dishes, especially those involving green mussels, squid and shrimp.
We couldn’t see it, but Osanai told us half-and-half is folded into this sensational yellow-curry sauce, which also houses onions, bell peppers and herbaceous Thai parsley. Whipped eggs played an invisible role as well, adding comforting richness to the dish.
My friends were thrilled to see “holy spicy basil” on the menu, saying they came to love it while visiting Thailand and cited its scarcity in American-Thai restaurants.
The dish’s cousin — spicy basil-fried rice — mixes together bite-size pieces of meat or seafood with rice, onions, peppers, basil and scrambled eggs. The “holy” version separates the components on the plate. And the protein (chicken breast in our case) is finely minced like larb. In comparison, this offered more complexity and a greater exotic spirit.
Khao soi is a Burmese-style soup that hides a couple of oven-tender drumsticks inside a tangle of egg noodles, bean sprouts, mustard greens, cilantro and green onions. The curry-based broth is semi-spicy, and the entire cast of ingredients is made for an outrageously delicious dish that you don’t expect from a humble eatery with fast-casual service.
Also memorable was the Kang Massaman I took home for later. Imagine beef stew with potatoes in classic brown gravy, but with coconut milk and micro bits of red chilies lurking in the recipe. It was nothing short of sensational.
Osanai opened Soi 30th in September 2017 and chose a colorful, industrial motif featuring bold, animated imagery from Thai artists. The enlarged prints hang aesthetically against corrugated metal and resemble some of the pop art of the late 1950s from the U.S. and Europe.
Soi, which means “street” in Thailand, is a welcome addition to this stretch of 30th Street. It’s exactly the kind of authentic Asian kitchen the neighborhood lacked. Sorry, but Underbelly II across the street doesn’t count; it’s a whimsical invention from a local restaurant group, and for better or worse, focuses on putting modern Japanese spins on ramen.
For now at least, the food at Soi has stolen my palate.
— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.