Born in Chon Buri, a coastal province about 45 minutes southeast of Bangkok, chef Tom Silargorn learned to cook by his mother's side. Three years ago, he opened Lers Ros in the Tenderloin and quickly earned a devout following of locals, chefs and food critics alike for serving the most vibrant and authentic Thai food many have had outside of Thailand. As Silargorn is quick to point out, that is entirely the point.
SFoodie: How did you get into cooking?
Silargorn: I learned cooking from my mom. The old style of the Thai family is that the wife stays home and cooks for the family and the husband works outside. As the youngest kid of [nine brothers and sisters], I always stayed with my mom, and because she was cooking for the children I just learned by always being by her side.
How did you end up coming to the States?
I came on a student visa for art school. While I was doing that I was also working in a Thai restaurant as a cook. But it was not real, real Thai food in the restaurant I was cooking - in most of San Francisco, I can say the cooking is not like real Thai cooking. So when I had the opportunity to open my own business I wanted to cook the way I learned, the way I knew how.
What is real, authentic Thai food to you?
The ingredients we put into it. Everything is homemade. It's not like we use things from a can or buy curry from the store. We make the curry from scratch.
You said most Thai restaurants in SF are not making real Thai food. What is the difference?
The taste. Most of them are too sweet, and their spicy is not like a Thai spicy. Thai spicy is supposed to be from fresh red chili. This you have to make by hand.
Where do you find your ingredients? Are they difficult for you to find?
No, it's not difficult. There are stores that are open to the public, like Wing King Seafood Market on Clement between 7th and 8th Avenues. They sell wholesale seafood, but also meat and pork. We get a lot of stuff from there.
Do you feel like you make food for Thai people here?
That is the point. I want to show American people this is real Thai food. That's why they come here.
You have quite a large menu. Exactly how many items do you offer?
There are 114 dishes in the regular menu, and maybe 10 in the special.
Do you feel like you have a specialty, or is there some part of your menu that you're particularly proud of?
I'm good with seafood. And dishes with spice.
How do you generally like to prepare your seafood? Do you prefer a certain method of cooking?
It depends on the seafood. Snapper is best steamed. For tilapia, deep-frying is better and maybe served with a spicy sauce. The steamed striped bass we have is very popular here and is a famous dish in Thailand also. Right now, we're using sea bass because the markets haven't had striped bass in over two months, but I still love it. Number 112, the Pla Kra Pong Nuang Manow, is steamed fresh with lots of chili and fresh lime. People order this dish every day.
What else do people order a lot?
Most people who come in here order the papaya salad. I would say 80 percent of customers order it. The garlic quail for an appetizer, #10 - it's a common Thai dish, often eaten as a snack, deep-fried with garlic and pepper. People order the duck salad, #25, larb phed yang. It is a big chunk of roasted duck mixed with rice and chili powder with a lot of fresh lime. Number 28, tom yum koong, I make over and over again all day. Oh and #62 is very famous for a main dish: Pork belly with basil, called pad kra prow moo krob. It's stir-fried until crispy.
What is your favorite item on the menu?
I like the #93, nuer pad prik. I like to eat beef, and this one we make with homemade chili sauce. We grind fresh chili and it makes all the difference. You can smell the difference, and taste it, too, of course.
Tomorrow, Silarkorn talks about his new restaurant in Hayes Valley, and on Friday, he'll supply a popular recipe from his restaurant.