What the Thai
By Nancy Powell
Authentic Thai flavors come to the land of meat and potatoes
Norco isn’t exactly a Mecca for Asian, much less authentic Thai food. When Sam Pankaew touched down upon the part of town last November, there with that large question mark looming over Pankaew’s head about the success factor of the carefully considered meals he and his wife planned to put forth to the community. With Pankaew’s experience (seasoned in a family of restaurateurs) and fortitude, he has managed to generate buzz beyond the isolated fence posts of this small town.
The spice-infused dining room lies empty on the day I visit, an unfortunate by-product of the searing heat that had descended upon all of Southern California. The restaurant is homey yet with subtle touches—most notably in the presentation of each dish—that adds an aura of sophistication to the whole experience. The Pankaews have developed a sizable menu—standard fare mixed in with some not-so familiar faces, like the poached filet of salmon with spiced curry and Crying Tiger (grilled slices of steak stir fried in a chili lime sauce)—that are all under $10.
Pankaew suggests the garlic and pepper shrimp as the main entrée, while I opt for the Thai Lettuce Wraps, a signature dish here, the Sweet Basil Salad and a pork version of the Pad Thai Noodles. After I’ve settled down to the cooling embraces of a sweet and strong iced coffee, Pankaew brings out a small plate of steamed chicken dumplings dressed in a warm, ginger soy dressing with the slightest hints of citrus. The dumplings are hand-made, plump and filled with a generous proportion of meat.
I understand why the Thai Lettuce Wraps of minced chicken, starchy jicama and crushed cashews have become a bestseller—the daintiness of the fresh, crispy romaine leaves combined with a filling that alternates between sweet and salty. It satisfies on all levels, pleasing the taste buds while tipping a hat to healthfulness. The Sweet Basil Salad follows soon afterward, containing little basil but mounds of shredded Napa, green and red cabbage, dressed in a strong, savory fish-sauce based condiment with shredded bits of chicken, scallions and nuts to add texture.
The Lettuce Wraps and Sweet Basil Salad represent the yin and yang in tastes—the first as warm and inviting, the quiet palate pleaser that anxiously anticipates the next round; the second acts as the palate cooler, the dish that slows down and preps you for the rest of the meal in a layered crescendo of alternating flavors. When the bowl of Tom Yum Soup arrives, full of fresh vegetables and chunks of chicken, it’s not so screaming hot that it destroys the appetite; rather, the tartness of the lemongrass offers a tempering respite from spicy madness.
Pad Thai is the standard measure, the “X” factor that makes or breaks a Thai restaurant. Too often the dish errs on the side of cloyingly sweet or cloyingly saucy. Pankaew’s version does neither. The noodles are toothsome and sweet, but not so sweet that it hides vinegary hints of fish sauce in the background. Again, that play of yin and yang, the palate cleanser before the grand finale of the garlic and pepper shrimp arrives. Pankaew marinates the shrimp in a slow-cooked, pungent paste of garlic, cilantro, and black and white pepper, balancing the contrasting flavors with a simple bed of steamed cabbage. The composition is decidedly Thai, and there is no mask of sugar and spice to soften the blast. One will either love or hate the dish. Luckily for Pankaew, most have given the dish a resounding thumbs up.
About the only disappointment is the mango and sticky rice, a dessert I won’t get to sample due to out-of-season mangos. Perhaps I am better off without it as I contemplate my next visit, placing my faith fully in the Pankaews’ able hands.
Sweet Basil Thai Bistro, 1670 Hammer Ave., Ste 9, Norco, (951) 280-0805; www.sweetbasilthaibistro.com. Open Mon-Wed, 11am-9pm; Thur-Sat, 11am-10pm; closed Sunday. AE, D, MC, V. Dinner for two, $30.