In the Orange County Thai-dining world, regional specialists such as Bangkok Taste and Thai Nakorn battle for dominance over their for-the-masses brethren, most of whom name themselves after a pun involving the use of the word “Thai.” But there is a third category of Thai restaurants around: those run by Thais, usually for Thais, but limiting regional offerings to ensure financial security—I'm thinking Supatra's Thai Bistro in Yorba Linda and Costa Mesa's Bangkok Corner.
The best of them is Sutha Thai Kitchen in Tustin (which was a Bangkok Corner for about a second a couple of years ago), a place so small the chefs could probably lean over the counter to serve you your dish straight from the stove. The menu offers few surprises and definitely next-to-none of the Isaan region specialties that make local fans of Thai cooking drive to North Hollywood or even Las Vegas' legendary Lotus of Siam for just a nibble. But you can sense the owners aren't content with merely slopping food onto plates for their loyal customers, that they're aching to flex their culinary muscles and show their true talents. Little touches hint at what truly drives Sutha Thai: a bit more spice on the pad Thai, for instance, or a heartier flavor in the masuman curry, a murky lava filled with potatoes and peanuts. All of the offerings are great, even if expected.
Sutha Thai lets its true talents shine, however, in the Thai-style salads, for which all pretenses of politeness are dropped. The larb radiates with lime and chile, its power nearly marinating the ground beef, chicken and pork that come with it into potent pebbles. The nam sod is even more nuclear, taking the same basic larb concept, but adding slices of red chile, raw red onions and strips of ginger that jolt you into attention with each bite. Better yet, the pork that comes with the nam sod isn't ground, but rather chopped, a small but crucial difference that adds depth to the dish.
Finally, the papaya salad, the mark of any Thai restaurant's aspirations: It's bracing, sweet (due to a generous offering of palm juice), just slightly fermented, bright and beautiful—the true Sutha Thai. It'll probably never allow other dishes to reach the papaya salad's unapologetic heights—and that's fine, since there's nothing wrong with mitigated winners. But one can dream. . . .
This column appeared in print as “Salad Days.”