Apart from raw heat, the defining characteristics of Thai cuisine are, arguably, citrusy brightness, color, and rice-noodle dishes. "Defining," that is, if your understanding of Thai gastronomy is monolithic and uniform, homogenized as a sort of negotiation undertaken during the cuisine's entry into America's culinary landscape a quarter-century or so ago, and now a bit frozen in place.
At Saap Ver, which has been open near Zynga's headquarters for a few months, there's a concerted effort to undo this state of affairs. "Saap Ver" means "over-the-top delicious," in Thai, and while both keywords are equally germane, they don't necessarily march in lockstep. Much of what Chef Nutnawat Aukcarapasutanun churns out is delicious, but on some of the riskier dishes, "over-the-top" is the better descriptor.
Easy, comforting things like salted wings ($8) are impossible to quibble with. These babies might be small, but they're as addictive as the salt-and-pepper wings at House of Xian Dumpling in Chinatown. Ditto for sweet-and-sour tamarind ($14). A minced pork larb ($10), probably the single greatest type of salad humankind has ever devised, was beyond reproach, as was the pork spare rib soup ($14) and the five-spice pig leg ($12). And classics with the more elaborate ingredient lists Thai cooking is notorious for — say, the papaya salad with rice-field salted crab, cherry tomatoes, green beans, and fermented fish sauce ($20) — are also over-the-top delicious musts.
Other things lacked balance: A well-cooked, fatty-on-crispy pork belly with green beans was way off-center in the meat-to-vegetable ratio, making for a conspicuous carnivorous outlier in Saap Ver's pork parade.
It's always disappointing when the intended big plate is the weak link, and the spicy shrimp paste dip with Siamese sardine ($25) was something of a head-scratcher. Essentially an eggplant tempura crudité platter with fried fish, it was hard to determine what the hub was. The individual components are solid, but you definitely do not need to dip the already-flavorful sardines in the even-more-intense sauce. I also couldn't escape a sort of river-bottom quality, an earthy feeling that reached for umami but got mired in murk — something that afflicted the pad see ew beef ($12) at lunchtime, too. "This is commitment," my dinner companion said (right before asking me if I was going to eat my fish's eyes). Was it a peasant dish from some rural province heretofore unknown to my unwittingly Bangkok-centric reckoning of Thai cooking? A riff on American cocktail party food? I have no dog in any fight over authenticity — a category that is basically exploding, as "fake" foods like chop suey get dusted off and reinvented — but I fundamentally didn't get it.
Delicious though it certainly is, pad thai is the Chipotle chicken burrito of Southeast Asia. Saap Ver's pad thai hor kai ($15) revs things up with an eggy envelope around the noodles and prawns, with mung, crushed peanuts, and green onion outside. It's hardly delicate, and I would have liked a peanut sauce or some other dipping component, but the dish was satiating the way an overstuffed three-egg omelet is (which is to say, quite). It's good, but it feels like breakfast-for-dinner.
The menu could benefit from simplification, which is not necessarily the same thing as pruning. Like the opening credits in an Apichatpong Weerasethakul film, the starters are listed in the middle, and random-feeling categories like "street food" and "from the chef" — each of which is distinct from the two dinner sets — make for an ardent period of silent flipping-back-and-forth as people cobble together an order. (This caught me off guard on every visit.)
While there is Singha and other beer on tap, the best thing I drank was a lime-filled, off-menu specialty cocktail ($12), the full ingredients of which I was unable to find out. Tangy-sweet and rimmed with smoked chile salt, it stuck the landing on those three core tastes like a suave move late in a game of Twister (and it cut the heat and oil, too). For such a large bar, though, it's a shame this restaurant hasn't invested in a full cocktail list. (I mean, cha-ching, right?) And dessert, almost always the Achilles' heel for native-born Americans in Thai restaurants, is an uninspired trifecta of coconut ice cream, durian black rice, or a grilled banana ($7 each).
But there's an infectiousness just to being in there. The vintage Thai film posters, the repurposed movie marquee, the old-lady-bathing-suit upholstery, the unfailingly cheery service: It's all there to induce smiles. With a few prominent exceptions — like Kin Khao or Lers Ros — there are two categories of restaurants in the local Thai food ecosystem. One type is good only for lunch or cheap takeout; the other contains places where people go for a romantic date to eat marked-up versions of the same dishes that they'd get for takeout amid neutral décor plucked from a community acupuncture studio. Saap Ver is neither — or rather, it's as difficult to categorize as its neither-SoMa-nor-Mission-Bay location. It's probably best for bigger groups, like a Thai Velvet Cantina — but to make things even more complicated, the dining room is really two-in-one, with the campier rear half considerably louder and the relatively spartan front friendlier for couples.
Saap Ver's predecessor, Grand Pu Bah, had an oyster bar and a reputation for superb green curry. After a few months and a few tweaks, I'm pretty confident the opinions of diners who become regulars will coalesce around an overly delicious dish or two, and Saap Ver will acquire a reputation for whatever those turn out to be.
In the meantime, even if a dish or two leaves you puzzled, you'll still have a grand time eating it.