Servicing Something More . . . or Less?
By Bill Gerdes
Elephant Thai’s customer service makes up for menu misses
If ubiquitous means what I think it does, Thai food is ubiquitous in 2012. Thai restaurants are indeed everywhere. You can get a spring roll in San Bernardino, curry in Colton and Pad Thai in Pomona. But it wasn’t always such kiddos. No, in the olden days, the ’70s and ’80s, you traveled to the big city if you wanted to try Thai cuisine, or managed to find the dreaded Chinese/Thai hybrid restaurant where a curious diner could find two cuisines done poorly together. We made do, and were rewarded in the ’90s. Suddenly, a new Thai joint was popping up every month. Some were even good. We were happy . . . unless you were looking for Thai in Downtown Riverside.
While there are some nearby, Bann Thai on Brockton Avenue for one, there’s a glaring absence of a Thai place near the Mission Inn, at least until this January when Elephant Thai finally opened up, after a few fits and starts. Now you can eat Thai within walking distance of the Fox Theater, the Inn, even the bus station. You’d think people would be happy.
Yet the early buzz on the place was negative. Customer review sites like Yelp mostly panned Elephant, people I knew who’d eaten there panned Elephant—part of the criticism seemed to be related to the place, part of it seemed more a backlash against yet another Thai place; we’ve gorged fat on Thai food and are now spoiled. Most of the criticism about Elephant Thai seems petty and overdone.
The best part about Elephant Thai is the patio out front. Sure it can get hot, but most tables are in the shade until quite late in the day. With a brilliant view of Mission Avenue and surrounded by other diners, I ate lunch dreamily kidding myself that I lived in a city with a thriving street scene. Elephant Thai has one of the best outdoor dining areas in the Inland Empire. Service was lovely if a tad relaxed—expect personable staff but to maybe grab your own table if they’re even slightly busy, as we did.
As for the food it’s a bit hit or miss-our appetizer platter being quite representative of its mercurial nature. Elephant Thai’s Money Bags are tasty little pastries filled with carrots, corn, and other goodies like minced pork that resemble a Thai version of a savory British pie and the spring rolls are tasty, peppery little versions of the breed. The rest of the plate, especially the tempura vegetables, was overly greasy. Our Massaman Curry suffered a bit from the blands, but the duck was tender and tasty.
I love Larb salad, which we also sampled, and I loved it here too. I’ve loved it since I first ordered it at 21 because I found the name amusing. The larb at Elephant suffers from some banal lettuce and other accoutrements but the chicken itself was minty, citrusy, sour, and full of heat. It was the dish that illustrated how varied and even paradoxical Thai flavors can be. Go to Elephant Thai during the week and try one of its $6.95 lunch specials and sit on the patio and chill out. Great service and location make up for the occasional miss on its menu.
Elephant Thai Cuisine, 3720 Mission Inn Ave., Riverside, (951) 682-9300. Sun-Fri, 11am-9:30pm; Fri-Sat, 11am-2pm. AE, MC, V.