Sutha Thai Kitchen - Tustin
This is that kind of place. The kind of corner joint mostly known and patronized by locals, where the only print review on the window is a few paragraphs long, clipped out lovingly from a hidden section of a community paper and held up by Scotch tape.
It seats maybe twelve or fifteen people, tops. The square footage is scant. I have been inside closets with more room. Any smaller and it wouldn't be a restaurant. It reminds me of a diorama constructed of cardboard and Elmer's Glue -- the one I spent all night making for a fifth grade project.
A thin layer of drywall separates you from the kitchen, behind which you hear the unseen whoosh of the burner and the loud clangs of a metal spatula beating up a wok.
One night we came early, at about six, and we noted how sad it was that we were the only ones there. But then, slowly, surely, we were proven wrong. Customer after customer came. Before we knew it, the place was filled to capacity. We heard every word of conversation from the next table -- a blonde woman in a red pea coat and a man in dreadlocks -- and smelled their food as we waited for ours.
Last Friday night, we sat at a table near the entrance (which, let's face it, every table was), and we shivered as yet another patron would breeze in through the doorway. Though the storm had finally passed, the roads were still sleek and it was a damned freezing night -- a night made for soup and rice.
We were there for the tom kha gai. They use criminis instead of straw mushrooms, and cabbage as filler; but oh that silken coconut broth! It was exactly what we needed: a boiling pot filled with a hot/sour/sweet exilir that would warm our extremities and melt our frostbitten ears.
It's as good as any I've had. But truthfully, is there such a thing as bad tom kha gai? Even a mediocre rendition would be a good one, especially when served in one of those aluminum vessels with chimneys that double as space heaters. We rubbed our hands over it, letting the heat bring back some feeling and circulation to our fingers.
On top of hot sticky rice we spooned yellow curry, a bright-as-sunshine blend redolent of lemongrass, coriander and cumin, rounded out with plenty of coconut milk. The chicken was white meat, the potatoes crinkle cut meticulously by someone who cared.
You'd say the same about the nam sod we ordered. They took the time to chop the pork to tiny bits with a cleaver, instead of just taking the easy way out with ground pork. The rougher, coarser consistency lends itself better to the lime juice and the bracing ginger slivers used as flavoring.
By the time we started on the lard na, we were too stuffed. The thick gravy lubricating the wide rice noodle was slightly more vinegary, more assertive than I expected. Bits of minced garlic, unseen until you encounter one, exploded in tiny bursts behind every slurp.
Afterward we walked out warmed and satiated, our garlicky breaths curling in steamy puffs in the frigid air.
Sutha Thai Kitchen
1161 Irvine Blvd.
Tustin, CA 92780
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