Shortly after opening in 2008, Lers Ros became the rare Thai restaurant in San Francisco where you'll hear as much Thai as English, and where chef-owner Tom Silargorn doesn't hide the frog with green peppercorns or pork entrail soup away from the uninitiated in a Thai-only menu. Nor does he sugar up his sauces like an obsequious smile. For all his desire to present food with what the chef calls the "true Thai taste," though, Silargorn seems to be conscious that his Tenderloin location has not reached as many diners as it should.
So this winter, Lers Ros opened a second branch that, in geographic terms, is less than a mile away from the first, but in cultural terms is on the other side of town: Hayes Valley's pre-Symphony-dinner-and-$400-shoes strip. The new Lers Ros serves lunch combos that resemble anything you'd find at more Americanized Thai restaurants nearby, as well as a daring wine list the likes of which few restaurateurs attempt. The crowd, on the last time I visited, was 90 percent white. Reservations are recommended, especially on weekends and performance nights.
And though a few dishes have not migrated to the new restaurant, much about the new Lers Ros is identical to the old one. The garlic quail ($9.95), for instance, is just as good, chunks of meat deep-fried until the skin takes on a cola-colored sheen. The flavors of fish sauce and browned garlic radiate from the quail, and while it's no work to clean off the tiny bones, it's hard to stop hunting for tinier and tinier morsels of meat until the next course arrives. Also still good: the papaya salad with salted crab ($9.95). The crab serves as a high, briny note that intensifies the hum of the fish sauce in the dressing, the jolt of the lime, the insidious chile heat that causes the capillaries in the lips to throb in a lacework of pain. It is a great papaya salad.
Silargorn is from central Thailand, but his menu is heavily peppered with dishes from the north and northeast, and he doesn't shy away from shrimp paste, lime, and chiles. The tom sabb ($10.95) with pork spareribs, a Bangkok version of a northeastern soup, is as tart as it is salty, the pork broth shaded with toasted rice powder and fish sauce; the aromas of lemongrass and makrut (kaffir) lime leaf rise up out of the bowl, as thick as July fog. A lime-and-fish-sauce dressing twined around the yum talay ($10.95), twists of scored squid and warm poached prawns smothered in herb leaves, their flavors glittering as the dressing refracted off them.
The new restaurant, I have to say, is a more attractive place to spend the evening than the anonymously modern original location. Two walls covered in irregular granite bricks frame the small restaurant, whose black ceilings and tables set all the other details — orange globes over the bar, columns beaded in small glass tiles, a wide-angle view of Hayes Street — in relief.
Pairing wine with Thai food is a blood sport for wine geeks. The flavors in even one dish are too contrasting and too vivid for most wines, and those of us who like beer as much as we like wine are content to stay out of the fray with a mug of Singha. But Silargorn brought on writer and wine rep Wolfgang Weber to do Hayes Valley's new list. It's short — 21 bottles — and affordable; with its Gamays and Grüner Veltliners, as well as subheads like "Dry, Racy, and Focused Whites," it reads as if it belongs up the street at Bar Jules. The house Riesling, a Reuscher-Haart 2009 Piesporter, is as clean and bright a universal pairing as you could hope for, and even the more sinewy Cheverny Blanc and the wild-fermented Broadside Chardonnay, with its surprising nose of fresh corn, work well with the salads, citrus-sharpened soups, and Thai herbs. The reds are more problematic; a spiky Portuguese Quinta de Saes, for instance, faltered when sipped with the yum talay, then inexplicably came alive when a fiery chile paste arrived.
The new Lers Ros does confound me with the same problems the old one has. Because I can't keep from picking dishes I haven't tried off the 100-plus-item menu, I've never felt like I've ordered entirely correctly, and the servers are much better at noticing when the plates needs more rice and the glasses needs more water than they are helping diners navigate the menu. There is always one dud dish on the table: toothless red or green coconut-milk curries ($10.95 with chicken or pork), a beef prik khing ($10.95) with sinewy meat, a sweet-and-sour tofu dish that could have come from a cheap Chinese takeout joint.
And then everything else on the table — especially chosen from the salads, the specials page, or the "Original Thai Style" section of the menu — is so good I wonder why I eat anywhere else. Lers Ros is the first San Francisco restaurant where I've found sadtor beans. Stir-fried with prawns and a sweet chile paste, the pale green, almond-shaped beans reveal new layers of flavor — sometimes grassy, sometimes bracingly funky — with each crunch. A phenomenal seabass with lime and chile ($25.95) bubbled away in a chafing dish, its delicate, cloudlike flesh the calm eye around which torrents of spice blustered and swirled. A fog of noise blustered and swirled around the crowded restaurant as well. Apparently a little style is all it takes for Silargorn to sell what he calls "true Thai tastes" to a new clientele. His competitors, I can only hope, are taking note.