In every part of Banana Leaf Kitchen’s name, there’s truth in advertising. As it’s first and foremost a takeout joint designed for GrubHub orders, the Huntington Beach eatery’s kitchen takes up nearly 80 percent of the floor space. There are no public restrooms, and all the food is packed in to-go containers, so they’re ready for pick up by customers who aren’t staying very long.
You could opt to dine-in, but you’d be doing so inside a small waiting area equipped with six chairs. The first three face a counter against a wall; the other three chairs are at a window that looks out to the parking lot. This dining room—if you can call it that—is too cramped to bring even the tiniest nuclear family and too casual for dates unless you’re already past the getting-to-know-you part of the relationship.
But if your date is originally from a Southeast Asian country where banana trees grow like weeds, bring them anyway. They’ll be impressed that Banana Leaf Kitchen serves every dish on top of a strip of banana leaf, just like how it’s done on the streets of Indonesia, Thailand and Laos. To a Southeast Asian expat, this subtle touch makes a huge difference.
And when you do decide to dine in, you’re offered a free plate of hot rice mounded over a leaf strip. The heat releases the leaf’s aroma, and as it wafts up to your nostrils, you’ll swear the rice tastes better than any you’ve ever had. But even if the banana leaf weren’t there, rice is essential to everything you consume here. The chicken stir-fried with holy basil, onions and yellow bell peppers just wouldn’t be the same without rice onto which you can spoon the gravy.
The rice is also required to properly enjoy the specialty of the house: a fire-roasted Lao pork sausage that’s packed with lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, chile and dill. It’s sliced into thick segments, with the charred butt-end pieces—where the natural casing puckers—being the most coveted. The more you slather on the chunky green chile sambal that comes on the side, the more you rely on the rice to calm the capsaicin burn crescendoing in your mouth.
You’ll also come to realize the rice acts as a buffer against overindulging on things that are all-too-easy to overindulge on. These are dishes such as the deep-fried pork belly, which weighs in at about a pound and consists of bite-sized morsels that are equal parts pig blubber and crackly skin. When you eat a piece, it crunches so loud you wonder if your cardiologist can hear it across town.
If your date is aware of your elevated cholesterol levels, she might eat most of the pork belly to “save you from yourself,” leaving you with the chicken satays, which are a slightly healthier consolation prize. They’re excellent here: Nearly as thick as the sausages, each dark-meat skewer is marinated with turmeric before being barbecued to charred edges and served with an addictive peanut dipping sauce.
Do what you can, however, to convince her to let you have some of the homemade chicharrón that’s packed in a baggie next to the papaya salad. Promise to eat the salad’s third component—a huge wedge of cabbage—if you must. The combination of the raw cabbage with the refreshing matchstick strips of papaya stained dark by padaek—the Lao version of fish sauce—is an experience that’s amplified tenfold by the addition of the chicharrón croutons. As with the other entrées, you also want lots of rice here. Even the mild version of the salad will have flames leaping from your mouth.
The kitchen does make non-spicy dishes. The homemade fish cakes are as soft as marshmallows. And the pad see ew—with its soy sauce-slicked belts of silken rice noodle—is just as luscious and comforting here as at any Thai takeout. But if it somehow tastes extra-special, it’s again because of that banana leaf.
Although Banana Leaf Kitchen packages its meals in boxes made of recycled materials, I look forward to the day when the rest of the Western world realizes that banana leaves have always been the perfect food containers. Southeast Asians have used them in that capacity for millennia. Collapsed into cones, they function as bowls; folded over into tetrahedrons, they’re moisture-proof takeout vessels. And even the most advanced biodegradable and sustainable Styrofoam substitute can never claim what a banana leaf has always been able to do, which is demonstrated perfectly at Banana Leaf Kitchen: make the food taste better.
Banana Leaf Kitchen, 19092 Beach Blvd., Ste. V, Huntington Beach, (714) 377-6614; www.bananaleaf.kitchen. Open daily, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Dishes, $7-$15. No alcohol.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.