Thai Nakorn, Reloaded - Garden Grove
Thai food. I must be on some sort of strange binge on it right now, since yet again, I'm posting about another Thai restaurant not even a week after I reviewed Krua Thai.
This time though, it's the venerable Thai Nakorn in Garden Grove that will be the focus of my current obsession.
Thai Nakorn, is the "no contest" favorite of mine for Thai cuisine in L.A. and Orange County. No restaurant I have been to in California has come close to reaching the pinnacles of greatness in Thai cookery than Thai Nakorn. (Notice that I was careful to say "in California", since a trip to Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas is a week away).
Thai Nakorn Garden Grove is the orphaned child of Thai Nakorn Buena Park, which until its recent demise was, in my opinion, the undisputed purveyor of authentic Thai cuisine. Dazzlingly bright flavors, confident spicing, and efficient service brought my family and I back, time and time again. Friends whom I've brought to dine at Thai Nakorn all agree that it was the best Thai they've had as well.
When I found out that the complex where Thai Nakorn has stood for so many years was going to be razed, I was shocked. But I was also hopeful, knowing that its new location in Garden Grove was already standing on its own two feet and well on its way to follow in daddy's footsteps.
And boy has it!
The food we had at the Garden Grove location last weekend was bold and amazing. It's probably because all of the cooks at the Buena Park branch are back at work in the new place.
We ate a Pad See Ew that puts to shame the same dish I had a Krua Thai last week. The ingredients used were identical. Chinese broccoli, beef, egg, and flat rice noodles were stir fried with soy sauce. But the execution and the resulting taste and texture were worlds apart.
The edge that Thai Nakorn's Pad See Ew had was the smoky character that comes from wok-hey. "Wok-hey", if you don't already know, is that elusive flavor that comes from cooking on a properly hot, seasoned wok. This is a wok so hot that flames erupt from it the moment the first morsel is introduced to the steel. The noodles, the meat, the veggies exuded this flavor, and it took the concoction from a simple stir fry dish to something that is both ethereal and sublime.
I can make Krua Thai's version on my home range, but only Thai Nakorn can make Pad See Ew the way that it did.
A bowl of Chicken Curry we ordered had a thin layer of glistening fat on the top with the hue of red chili oil. The curry itself was bright yellow and thick like a stew, made hearty with coconut milk and turmeric. Hunks of falling-apart chicken and potatoes completed this rustic meal. Put in on top of hot rice and you'll taste proper Thai curry for the first time. You can imagine this as a one-pot dinner a harried Thai mom would simmer all day to feed her hungry family.
Chicken Satay was also good, but an unadventurous choice. Pieces of marinated dark meat chicken were skewered and grilled, served with peanut sauce and fresh pickled cucumbers. They were no better than those I've had at Wat Thai temple, which is to say, they were excellent. But then, I've not yet encountered a Thai restaurant that does Chicken Satay badly.
To make up for the slightly tame choices so far, we picked out the Spicy Clams to ratchet our meal up a notch. The clams were probably the most challenging dish on the table. Seemingly simple and straightforward in appearance, this plate of Manila clams was coated with a dark brownish-red sauce and decorated with errant strands of Thai basil. But that sauce harbored a secret; a secret that I discovered quickly as soon as I took a taste.
A funky, mysteriously fishy and rank flavor permeated through this salty, sweet reduction. The aroma will make you think of a dirty, smelly gym sock. Added to that, in your mouth, you will detect a gritty, foreign substance.
This dish proved a little too exotic for my Caucasian friend who couldn't quite reconcile what it was he was tasting. Though, for me, it was heaven, since I grew up eating home-cooked meals made with this pungent, stinky secret ingredient of Southeast Asian cooking: fermented shrimp paste.
I guess it's just one of those acquired tastes that defines who you are and where you came from.
For dessert, we decided to forgo the usual coconut ice cream for some sweet Thai snacks since the restaurant has a counter stocked with goodies.
The first thing we picked out was a clear plastic container of dried fruit which was labeled innocently enough as "Mango Covered with Sugar". And that's what it looked like: thin, dried strips of mango covered with granulated sugar.
Okay, that sounds good, we thought. But later, when I popped one of these thin strips into my mouth, I yelped, "Holy Shiite!" The damned thing was laced with chili!
It wasn't an overwhelming heat, just unexpected. It made me think that it must be Thai Nakorn's idea of a novelty joke! Afterwards, we reread the ingredient list and saw no mention of the chili! We concluded that those sneaky Thai Nakorn people got us good. We owe them a noogie the next time!
In any case, the mango "candy", as it were, turned out to be quite addictive, once we got past the element of surprise.
Thai Nakorn Restaurant
12532 Garden Grove Blvd
Garden Grove, CA 92843
*UPDATE (January 8, 2007): Thai Nakorn has been destroyed by an early morning fire. Read the OC Register story here. And click here for a larger post with more photos.