Peninsula food – Tantawan high on Thai
Tantawan Thai’s servings and server lift spirits
by Richard Foss
I don’t always comment about the service, even though that has a lot to do with the quality of the dining experience. Once in awhile, though, it makes or breaks a meal, and that just happened at Tantawan Thai, a restaurant located in a shopping center near the corner of Silver Spur.
I was meeting family members for dinner, and one had just had a bad day at work. Wait, did I say bad? I mean stupendously awful, the kind of day that can leave you sullen, irritable, and looking for someone to vent at. Thai food hadn’t been her first choice for the evening, and as she waited for a menu to be delivered she was an explosion looking to happen.
The person who delivered that menu was a sunny character named Carlos, who handled a snappish customer with deft diplomacy and wit. When we asked his opinion of one item that seemed fairly plain, he responded, “That’s very healthy. You should get something else.” After a few such comments, the person who was having a bad day was living in the moment and enjoying the repartee. It was a case of the irresistible charm meeting the immovable grouch, and it was the grouch that melted.
All this bonhomie would have led to disappointment if the food that Carlos was recommending hadn’t been up to par, but we were in a good mood as we awaited our appetizers while sipping a Chainier “1749” Sauvignon Blanc. Though New Zealand has become famous for this varietal in the last few years, the French entrants like this one from Bordeaux are worth exploring. The climate in France is warmer, the soil limestone based rather than volcanic, even the aging method different, and French Sauvignon Blancs are more subtle without the pungent grassy overtones. The New Zealanders are usually suggested with spicy Asian cuisines because the tropical fruitiness stands up well to spice and vinegar, but we found this enjoyable both as a sipping wine and with the food. They sell it for only $20 per bottle, which is a very good price.
Our starters were eggrolls, dumplings called ka-nohm-jeeb, and an order of crabcakes that were served with a side salad. The dumplings were a Thai version of Chinese shu mai, ground chicken and shrimp with shiitake mushroom and water chestnuts steamed inside a thin crepe-like noodle. Though Thailand doesn’t share a land border with China there has been trade for centuries, and the culinary influence was clear here, with none of the heat and ginger that characterizes most Thai food. A thick soy-based spice sauce was served with it and that added flavor without ratcheting the heat very high, but these were just fine without it.
I did want a little more zip with the eggrolls, which were a bit on the bland side and served with a sweet chili sauce. When asked Carlos provided a trio of sauces with different balances of vinegar and chili. One of these had chopped red and green peppers in a tart vinegar and was so assertive that I momentarily lost my ability to speak when I got too much of it. I kept applying it because it was delicious, but did so more moderately.
The crabcakes were a winner, too, the two large discs of seafood mildly seasoned and served with some noodles stir-fried with onions and a dipping sauce of mild red curry. The exterior had the uniform crispness that suggested it had been egg-dipped before deep frying, which isn’t how I usually like crabcakes, but it worked and that’s what matters. The red curry dip was fragrant rather than hot according to the spice wimp at the table, but we had asked for things to be mild and now know we can give them a bit more latitude with the seasoning.
We continued with a “tiger salad” which contained no actual large felines, but was composed of a mix of grilled beef, scallion, onion, lemongrass, and mint leaves over a bed of green salad. Salads like this aren’t really Thai because lettuce as we know it doesn’t grow there, but this 1960s invention by a Thai chef in Los Angeles has gone global. As well it should, because the combination of spice and garlic in the meat with a vinegary, slightly peppery dressing is a winner.
Our final items were barbecue garlic pork over vegetables, shrimp pad Thai, and chicken with spicy chili and basil. If I had it to do all over again I might have ordered something other than the garlic pork because it was similar to the garlic beef that had been on the salad, and I would have liked to try a wider range of flavors from this kitchen. The different setting with cooked vegetables and a side sauce lent sufficient variety that we weren’t bored, but I’d still suggest getting one or the other.
The shrimp pad Thai was standard but well crafted, the shrimp briefly grilled rather than steamed and the vegetables in good balance with the noodles, peanuts, and sauce. It wasn’t highly spiced and as far as I can tell shouldn’t be – it’s a gentle savory item that is a delight when done traditionally. The chicken with chili and basil was more assertive even though we had ordered it medium in deference to the two-heat-averse people at the table. When made mild it accents the pungency of Thai basil, which has a concentrated herbal flavor that is very different from the Italian variant. The basil was accented by chili in the mild version, but if we had asked them to kick the seasoning up a few notches it would have been the other way around. Either way, it’s an enjoyable dish and one I would recommend here.
We were offered the choice of regular jasmine rice, coconut rice, or brown rice with each entrée, and we got one of each. My suggestion is to do the same, because the different flavors in each add shadings to the curries and sauces.
Dinner for four with a bottle of wine and a beer ran $133 and we took home enough for a nice lunch the next day. It was a fair price for a fine meal in pleasant surroundings, a showcase for a meal with character and a server who is one.
Tantawan Thai cuisine is at 871 Silver Spur in Rolling Hills. Open daily 11:30 a.m. — 2:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. – 9 p.m., parking lot, wheelchair access good. Vegetarian and vegan items available, but ask about use of fish sauces. Beer and wine served, no outside wine. No website, phone 310-544-0265. Pen