Packed almost to the rafters on a chilly Thursday evening, Taste of Thai noisily affirmed the dining magnet that Hillcrest has become in the last two decades. It wasn’t always this way.
Proprietor Val Habbestad, a native of Thailand married to a Norwegian, recalls that when she opened her University Avenue hot spot in the late 1980s, Hillcrest was just emerging from the doldrums that followed the closure of once-popular neighborhood eateries such as Pernicano’s and Casa di Baffi a decade or so earlier.
“Corvette Diner had just opened, and that made all the difference,” Habbestad said before scurrying off to add the names of new arrivals to the waiting list. Interestingly, Corvette Diner has since moved to the Liberty Station district of Point Loma, and its sister restaurant, Kemo Sabe, has gone to restaurant limbo for the time being, although it may resurface in coastal North County within a year. But Taste of Thai rocks and rolls, as do many of the other restaurants that jostle one another in this relatively compact dining and entertainment district.
It’s hard to believe, but when Taste of Thai opened, it was among a handful of Thai restaurants in San Diego. At present, it seems as if a Thai place occupies every corner, and the explanation is simple enough: locals like bright, fresh flavors tinged with spice, and Thai cuisine has all of this, plus a great deal more. By no means can one restaurant substitute for another, however. While the general quality level of Thai restaurant cuisine in San Diego is quite good, a quick read of the Taste of Thai specials menu makes it clear that this is the destination for distinctive (at least locally) and well-prepared dishes.
The most delicious example is the appetizer called “Larb mushroom delight.” Habbestad said she encountered this flavorful little masterpiece on her last visit to Thailand, in mid-2009, and after tasting it, one eagerly wishes her many more happy trips home. Larbs made with minced pork or chicken are familiar to regular patrons of local Thai eateries, but this one, centered by mushroom slices cooked to an unusual and irresistibly crisp finish, stands out for delicacy and flavor. Tossed with vivid seasonings such as lime juice, dried chili, lemongrass, fresh mint and rice powder and meant to be rolled in crisp lettuce leaves, the mushrooms run a race around the mouth that touches all the bases and gets every taste bud involved. Don’t miss this one.
A few of the same seasonings—lime, red onion and chili—enliven the whole trout with green apple salsa, but the addition of cashew nuts and other items creates an entirely different effect for this dish. Another one-of-a-kind specialty, this is just what the menu describes, a quick-fried trout with the tart flavor of green apple as the dominant note in a sharp symphony of flavors. Two stars, denoting very spicy seasoning, garnish the listing for pork shanks a la Val, yet another dish you’re unlikely to encounter elsewhere in town. It’s an elegant dish (and not at all overpoweringly hot), which presents three lacquered, remarkably succulent little shanks, so tender that the rich meat almost melts at a glance. It certainly melts in the mouth, and most deliciously, thanks to a wide range of flavorings that includes Thai herbs, garlic and lemon grass; arranged on top, sprays of utterly unfamiliar green berries turn out to be Asian chili seeds. They’re pretty to look at, but otherwise, look out.
A dish so essentially meaty as the pork shanks calls out for a vegetable accompaniment, such as the Thai asparagus listed on the specials menu. Sautéed with mushrooms in a mild, somewhat garlicky oyster sauce, the asparagus has a nice, crisp “bite” between the teeth, and stands alone just as successfully as it pairs with meat preparations. Enrich it if you like with a choice of chicken, shrimp or tofu, or pair it with the Crying Tiger, a familiar dish that Taste of Thai presents quite appetizingly as a half-pound New York steak, marinated, grilled and served with a notably spicy lime dipping sauce. It’s a genuine pleasure as long as you enjoy a sizzling taste of spice.
The specials list offers other treasures, but Taste of Thai’s standing menu presents a comprehensive
survey of favorites, from appetizers such as fried Spring rolls filled with chicken, shrimp, cabbage and glass noodles, to such handsome seafood preparations as grilled freshwater prawns. These sizeable, succulent critters can be ordered swimming in a mild curry sauce or doused with a spicy chili sauce. The option adds to the pleasure, as long as the table can agree how to approach these tasty beauties. Like most of the many entrees and curries, the excellent selection of noodle and rich dishes can be prepared vegetarian-style or with a long list of garnishes that ranges from tofu, chicken, Thai sausage and roasted pork to beef, roasted duck, shellfish or mixed seafood, all priced accordingly. Portions are large, and there is virtually no chance of going home hungry.
Desserts, often the short suit at Asian restaurants, are varied and pleasant, and while the seasonally available pairing of mango and sticky rice is probably the most typical (and perfectly delicious, too), a satisfying degree of self-indulgence attaches itself to the pairing of fried, finger-length banana pastries and coconut ice cream. From the point of view of one who might manage the entire plate, this sweet shares altogether too well.