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Little Bangkok: Thai and a Touch of Proust

Beth Hughes, Special to the Examiner
June 2, 2000

Several hours before meeting a friend for dinner at Little Bangkok, my mother called, hoarse with a spring cold, asking for "the chili soup from that little place on the corner" and in the same breath saying I wasn't to try to send a bucket or so of the fiery cure-all back East via FedEx.

She'd experienced tom yum gai — a spicy-sour chicken soup with mushrooms, lemongrass and lime juice — several visits ago when I described it as my medicinal soup of choice. The good-taste memory remained strong and soothing.

The food's like that — memorable, comforting and good — at Little Bangkok, a locally appreciated feature of the Inner Sunset's busy area around the Ninth and Irving intersection.

It's the kind of restaurant where a steady stream of hungry folks comes throughout the day and evening, picking up to-go orders as others hunker down around the dozen or so glass-topped tables under a gilt altar laden with offerings and a portrait of Thailand's long-reigning King Bhumibol Adulyadej. (Never, ever eat at a Thai restaurant that lacks a portrait of the king. It's a real life rule.)

While waiting for my friend, a brace of preschoolers at a large table nearby serenaded their adults with a very soft rendition of "Do You Know the Muffin Man." I people-watched, thinking how lucky I am to live in a neighborhood where I can find the kind of Thai food that reminds me of working in Bangkok, and is served with the same kind of smile.

No, Little Bangkok does not offer that ubiquitous barbecued Bangkok street snack, flattened squid on a stick. Nor does your take-away order come in clear plastic bags closed with a rubber band, a mode of transport adopted here for goldfish on the move from shop to home. But if you're craving the kind of food you had while exploring a soi off Bangkok's Sukhumvit Road, or after a few hours poking about a night market in Chiang Mai or a day on the beach at Hua Hin, this just might be your kind of place, pad Thai with a touch of Proust.

A proper Thai meal starts with a soup. Even if Little Bangkok isn't fancy, mind your manners (that means eating with only a fork and spoon, which is the utensil you eat from) and enjoy any one of the seven soups on offer ($6.50-$8.50).

I'm partial to the varieties with a spicy-and-sour broth, but there are cold summer nights when those with a coconut milk base are perfection in a bowl.

Sometimes I decide on a soup based on what else I want to eat. The key to a good Thai meal is balancing the flavors. Chili-hot with subtle ones to avoid discomfort, sweet with sour, a series of combinations you should select to satisfy the nose, eye and palate.

Which is exactly what we did recently. Singha and Elephant beers, downed with beef satay sated our hunger and convinced my skeptical friend that this little unassuming place rocked. The peanut sauce warmed the mouth; the marinated cucumber salad cooled it. The tender, charred beef eased off the stick. Bliss.

We decided to forgo my favorite standbys — the transcendent minty chicken, ($6.50) the earthy and honest pad Thai ($6.50) that is one of the best versions in The City, the lovely larb ($6.50) and perfectly seasoned Panang beef ($6.50). Onward across new food frontiers we boldly ate.

Chicken with bamboo shoots and basil in yellow curry sauce ($6.50) avoided the often cloying sweetness that can mark a mediocre yellow curry. This exuded a perfume that hinted of India, and the Thai skill at adopting new ingredients, while recalling the lunchtime smells in Pahurat, Bangkok's wholesale fabric district. Salmon with vegetables in red curry ($7.50) that wasn't too hot, allowing us to taste the fish. Sauteed tofu with eggplant ($5.50) ….. well, I've never met an eggplant I couldn't love. Each dish was different and delicious, although the salmon seemed a tad dry in the thinner parts of the filet.

But who's complaining? That was the only dish we finished because we were saving room for dessert, Thai-style tapioca (dessert caviar with sweet corn throughout, $3.25), and a fried banana with vanilla ice cream ($3.00). It was a tough call; mango sticky rice ($3.25) is one of the world's best food groups.

That's not the end of Little Bangkok, however. You can waddle out, lugging your leftovers and wander the neighborhood for a stroll in Golden Gate Park, some good shopping (cash after lunch, window after dinner) or browsing in any one of the nearby bookstores. Locals may complain that the neighborhood is changing for the ritzier, and they're right, but that doesn't mean it isn't still walkable and interesting. Several gift shops compete to amuse passersby with their window displays. And clothing shops like Alaya make you wish you hadn't eaten quite so much.