A good, cheap Thai restaurant is an elusive thing to find because when Thai is bad, it’s unpalatable. To be honest, the first time I had Thai food was gastro-intestinal disaster—the food itself was flavorless and lukewarm, and the whole experience made me wish I had stayed home and microwaved quesadillas instead. The experience set in place certain prejudices against the cuisine, but eventually I was dragged to another Thai joint. The second time around, the food was so hot that the only part I could taste was the burning. The third time, I was drunk and the food was decidedly better. It took a while, but the time finally came I was able to find a place that balanced flavor and spice, and soon thereafter I was addicted. Problem was the restaurant was too far away for me to stop in every time I had a craving for some delicious, not-overly-spicy-but-still-spicy Thai food. Surely there had to be something closer that was equally appetizing.
That’s when I stumbled upon Pomona’s Mix Bowl Café. Actually, it kind of found me. Its humming neon lights beacon out through the dark streets, snaring hungry passers-by with its siren song of a preposterously bright iridescent glow and promise of a well-cooked late night Thai feast. Seriously, the place glows in the midnight black of the surrounding neighborhood sending bony fingers of florescence jabbing through the retinas of diners—it’s luminous Day-Glo color scheme is more like Ken Kesey’s bad acid nightmares than Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. This eatery is not a construct of mere mortals, but a temple constructed by the gods of cutesy-kitsch themselves.
Mix Bowl isn’t open all night, but with a 2AM closing time it’s open late enough to keep wayward barflys and other sundry miscreants and stragglers well fed. Or at least that’s the scene you would imagine inside. In reality, there are nice people leisurely slurping away at their Thai dishes while basking in the neonlight, and the fact that it’s midnight doesn’t mean a thing to them.
The café’s waitstaff was efficient and polite, seating us right away and quickly bringing out our drinks. Mix Bowl’s bright menu is immense with almost 100 different food items alone, so pouring over it takes a while. The accompanying pictures are equally colorful. Dishes range from rice and noodle entrées to seafood and Thai BBQ platters. There’s a vegetarian section with mostly tofu dishes for herbivores, but any dish can be substituted with tofu, thus tailoring it for a vegetarian (as I am). Such a cheery menu and vivid décor was enough to soften my pensive attitude toward Thai food, but even still I perceived an underlying angst for the meal to come. Call it too many bad experiences. But these apprehensions were short-lived as, a few minutes after ordering, our food started to arrive and extinguished any. It was great.
We started with the seafood salad, which was entirely seafood—muscles, crab, squid, etc—and no salad, yet was lightly cooked to perfection and covered with a spicy lime dressing. A few minutes later came a heaping plate of texture rich pad thai with tofu, and the ratio of flavor and spice was balanced enough to please even the pickiest Goldilocks. Even the tofu, which oftentimes comes out a bit mushy, was tough on the outside and soft in the middle. The green curry fried rice came a few seconds later. We ordered it with tofu, but it can also be ordered with chicken. The fried rice was sweet and the tofu adequately spicy. Just right, really. Last came the tofu rahd nah, which is fried tofu with baby corn, mushrooms, onions and carrots in a clear gravy sauce. It was a bit bland, but when paired with our spicy food, it offered blessed relief from a burning mouth.
Mix Bowl’s portions are large and we ended up with a lot of food to take home, and at $30 for the entire meal, the price was just right, too. Mix Bowl Café, Pomona’s temple of glowing kitsch, made a disciple out of me.
Mix Bowl Café, 1520 Indian Hill Blvd., Pomona, (909) 447-4031; www.mixbowlcafe.com. Open daily, 11AM-6PM