"Why Suriya?" asked Joey the beanpole pastry-master as Dave drove us south. "Some friends of mine told me it had a lot of great, unusual dishes," I answered. "They mentioned a pumpkin curry they loved. And I haven't reviewed any Thai restaurants yet --" "Really? How come?" Dave asked. "-- precisely because most of their menus are so similar. Thep Phanom's the best and San Francisco Barbecue does something different, but otherwise you keep seeing the same dishes, usually all done pretty well -- so unless they use imitation crab or something, what's there to say? I haven't been to Thailand except two hours changing planes, so my palate's not educated enough to detect subtle nuances." "Didn't you eat anything during those two hours?" TJ asked. "Nah, I didn't want to hassle changing rupees to bahts just to sample airport food."
On plebeian outer Valencia, next to a church of one of the fervid Protestant sects, smack across from a cowboy-clothing store, Suriya proved shockingly beautiful. Named for proprietor Suriya Srithong, the restaurant's ficus trees and bulbous twig-filled vases evoke a temple garden, in a long room subtly partitioned into three intimate dining areas. The window tables are separated from the center tables by two dignified Indian elephants rendered in ebony, each the approximate size of a mature potbellied pig. Pictured pachyderms bedeck one wall, and over the bar on the other side are eight little wooden shelves, holding sculptured wooden animals (dragon, rabbit, etc.), each the size of a Siamese cat, with an iron crank projecting from its mouth -- they're coconut graters, a waiter explained.
The back of the menu urges, "ask for our fine wine list." We did, and it was not so fine, its brutal brevity bereft of GewYrtz, Vouvray, or any other spice-friendly wallet-sparing white. Two of us settled for Siamese Singha beer, the other two chose Thai iced tea, a pleasing R-rated rendition here, with just a modicum of sweetened milk.
But the food menu is as lengthy as the wine list is short, with xeroxed supplements listing specials. There are perhaps fewer stir-fries and more curries (of all colors) than a typical Thai menu, and true to our friends' promise, many choices are unusual or even unique. I didn't notice until too late an entree combining stir-fried pasta, seafood, mushrooms, and dried cranberries, nor a clear soup with a fried egg, sausage, garlic, and a large supporting cast, nor a brandy-spiked green curry, among others. The menu does have the standard asterisk code: one star denotes "Spicy," two mean "Very Spicy," and three indicate "VERY VERY Spicy." However, nothing on the printed menu actually bears the dread sign of the triple asterisk, and only four dishes have even a double star. Now, to save a lot of future verbiage, the story here is: One star actually means "Just a little spicy." Hence, if you've recently returned from Phuket with your gullet all galvanized, remember to tell your waiter (preferably in Thai: "Chai ped, dai prod!") that you want your food extra-hot, please.
We began with a home-style appetizer special, Mieng Kum ($7). Rolling your own, you shape young spinach leaves into little funnels, hold them between thumb and forefinger, and fill them as desired with the contents of the surrounding saucers: diced shrimp, chopped red onion, lemon fragments, minced ginger and green chile, shredded toasted coconut, whole peanuts, and a thick, ebony-colored, sweet fruity sauce touched with red chile paste and walloped with shrimp paste. There were many peanuts, but only as many prawn niblets as there were spinach leaves. "This is cheap for them to make," said Joey, calculating the cost-benefit ratio. "But think of all the dishwashing!" Dave protested. Next up were grilled stuffed mushrooms ($6), with a salty minced prawn and chicken filling, coated with a luscious, just-spicy peanut sauce made with minced dried Thai chiles -- the tiny, oblong phrik leung ("rat poop") peppers. "Forget the mushrooms, I could just eat the sauce," Dave and Joey said almost in unison.
We thought the spiciness level might be ramping up; we were wrong. Our next starter was the single-asterisked Koong Ka Bok ($6), "Shrimp in Their Sleeping Bags." Like Mom's "pigs in a blanket," the juicy marinated prawns wore a wide girdle of pastry -- here, a delicate, greaseless rice-flour batter. A tea saucer held sweet dipping sauce with a touch of citrus flavor and a scattering of hot pepper flakes -- "like a spicy marmalade," TJ said, nailing it. Alongside was a naked, crisp cabbage slaw with whole peanuts. The super-standout starter was Malagaw Tod ($5), green papaya wedges fried in a crunchy multitextured batter of rice flour, sesame seeds, and shredded coconut; they looked like baby octopuses with a skin condition and tasted heavenly. Joey identified the smooth, sweet, ginger-tanged dip: "It's a Chinese sauce that my mother buys in cans; they serve it with roast duck." "Ah, duck sauce!" I teased. (Actually it's plum sauce.) Alongside the fritters was a scrumptious slaw of superfine shredded cabbage and carrots with minced peanuts and a rich sweet dressing reminiscent of mee krob, Siam's puffed rice-noodle extravaganza. "Ooh, I've had green papaya shredded in a salad, of course, but never done this way," Dave rhapsodized. (Suriya offers green papaya salad, too -- served in a crisp noodle basket, just to be different.)
Our main courses arrived all at once, too massive an array to fit comfortably on the table. (Next time, we'll order half at the start, the second half when the first round arrives.) Pla Muk Kra Tiem ($9) had garlic-marinated calamari sauteed with carrot shreds and fresh cilantro in "Suriya sauce" -- a light, salty glaze, with clear, distinct notes of additional garlic and black pepper. "Better eat this one first," TJ cautioned. "Squid turns to rubber if you let it set!" We dug in happily. "Part of the joy of these flavors is their separation -- give 'em too much time and they'll meld," Dave noted. "I could eat the whole bowl." "But not fast enough," TJ warned. Ten minutes later, the scant orts remaining had indeed fulfilled the dire predictions, but by then our mouths were otherwise occupied.
Kai Basil Sauce ($9) held prawns in a Thai version of pesto -- a luxuriously thick, smooth, slightly sweet olive-green puree of basil and coconut milk, rimmed with a confetti of diced red pepper. "Perfect prawns," said Joey. "You ever eat this in Thailand?" he asked our waiter. "No, never," the latter laughed. Then I had to pay homage to Evil Jungle Prince ($8), a dish popularized by several Honolulu Thai restaurants (the most famous, but not best, being Keo's). It's a red curry with spinach, shredded napa cabbage, and a few red pepper slices and halved green jalapenos, with chicken, prawns, or vegetables. I loved the assertive kafir lime leaves' tart retorts to the unctuousness of the coconut milk. However, we'd chosen chicken and the thin slices were a little dry; also, in winter our fresh jalapenos are mere pussycats, so the dish could have used more of them to approach the Hawaiian versions' "evil" punch. We also had a special of pumpkin curry with pork -- creamy, golden, and lush, with a little nip of chile paste. Dave wondered if pumpkin was really a Thai vegetable; back home, I checked several cookbooks and learned that Central America's pumpkinlike kabocha squash has been adopted from Japan down to Malaysia.
Our final entree was another special, Khao Son ($8), "Chiang Mai noodles," a rare chance to try a Northern Thai dish. The fettuccine-shaped noodles were sauced in yet another variation of coconut milk curry, this one tasting more like Indian curry powder than Thai curry paste. "As is," the noodles were flat, but then the waiter brought a platter of condiments: a grainy red-black chile paste, a big slice of lemon for squeezing, a heap of minced red onion, and a ramekin of sharply pickled cabbage nuggets. With these, the dish came alive. There were also beef slices in there, which we all found supernumerary: "This would be just as good in the vegetarian version," said Dave. "The beef is mainly useful to anchor your noodles on your fork." Bellies packed to the dermis, we skipped the two desserts.
Was this authentic Thai food, we asked ourselves? Joey didn't seem to think so, and TJ was doubtful, given how dissimilar our dinner was to the fierce flavors and startling juxtapositions of other Thai food he'd eaten. "Unusual Thai," Dave characterized it. On reflection, I thought that Suriya's worldly, soigne version of Thai cuisine bore a resemblance to the food of neighboring Cambodia, with its milder, subtler, French-influenced treatments of a similar array of ingredients. Suriya's cooking is hardly "typical" Thai food, but distinct, individualized chef-style Thai cuisine -- delicious and fascinating.