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A Perfect 10 

Osha Thai Noodle Cafe

Wednesday, Sep 18 2002
Consider yourself lucky if you have a 10-spot in your pocket: It's all you need to enjoy the splendors of Osha, a late-night Thai noodle joint that delivers more flavor for the dollar than any restaurant I can name. For the past six months, the magnificent dish listed as spicy laht nah has drawn me to the corner of Geary and Leavenworth again and again. Chow fun noodles come tossed with sweet bell peppers, chilies, tomatoes, basil, a choice of meat, and a savory gravy so delectable I end up downing the stuff like soup once the noodles are gone. It's a vibrant, electric mound of grub that you can take up a few notches if you add any one of nine condiments -- say, chopped peanuts, white pepper, pickled chilies, or a blistering olek sambal sauce.

If that's not enough flavor, Osha also happens to be the hippest late-night Thai noodle joint in town, with sponge-painted yellow walls, a soft house-music soundtrack, and a lucky cat that greets customers with a waving mechanized arm. Everyone seems to make his way here: cops, yuppies, posses of Asian coolios, tourists, barhoppers, Thai food-loving average Joes, and bohemians with dyed hair and metal rings through their septums. I've cursed these people at times (they're often numerous enough to produce a wait). Fortunately, the turnover is brisk, and the service is so efficient that once you're seated, uttering the magic words "spicy laht nah" means satisfaction is only minutes away.

Of course, Osha's menu runs deeper than the dish I've come to think of as No. 51. Though the beverage selection is limited to Thai iced coffee or tea topped with sweet condensed milk, free hot tea, sodas, and the earthy, barely sweet "logan drink," lunch and dinner include a whopping 90 selections, the majority priced at $6.50 or less. With a whole bunch of 10-spots to burn, I rounded up five friends and set off to explore new territory. We arrived at 9 p.m. on a Saturday and spent 20 minutes waiting out front for a booth. Once seated, we ordered a dozen courses.

"That's a lot," noted our waitress. She was right.

In fact, it was so much food that we had to pile dishes on the back of our booth, and I had enough leftovers to last through Monday. We made some safe choices, but also some exotic ones, such as an appetizer of "naked prawns" -- butterflied raw shrimp topped with garlic, chilies, and a razor-sharp tamarind dressing, a combination that struck the palate with the subtlety of a bolt of lightning and left smoldering fire in its wake. Other fine starters included plump, deep-fried squid balls served with a spicy, sweet dipping sauce and crackling spring rolls stuffed with glass noodles, taro, cabbage, and shiitakes. Before dinner, my friend Rachel said she didn't like spicy Thai food, but I knew she'd be down with larb. We ordered it mild and got a fabulous version of this classic Thai salad -- cool minced chicken tossed with red onions, green onions, and a hint of cilantro, the mix bathed with an invigorating lime and fish sauce dressing.

Incredibly, Rachel doesn't like duck, either. Too rich, she said; fine, I replied. That meant the rest of us could enjoy a few extra bites of Osha's superb duck noodle soup -- slices of juicy roast fowl and tender egg noodles in a rich stock tinged with five-spice. Thai boat noodles was the only dish I wouldn't order again. Sliced beef, beef meatballs, and rice noodles swam in a broth suffused with a funky-looking gunk that coated our spoons like mud. If you prefer your noodles on a plate and like them mild, try the Thai laht nah, a toned-down (compared to the spicy version) chow fun with crunchy Chinese broccoli, savory gravy, and smoky beef, chicken, or pork, as you desire. If you want noodles that duck- and spice-hating folks like Rachel wouldn't touch for a million bucks, order the dish listed as "Osha spicy pan fried." We asked for this one hot (which means hot, and then some), and got egg noodles with roast duck, tomatoes, and onions, screaming with flavor thanks to a handful each of basil and chilies.

For a milder nosh, try the crab fried rice, which exuded the clean, ocean-sweet flavor of its namesake ingredient and came with tomatoes, egg, sautéed onion, and refreshing slices of cucumber. From there, the menu veers into stir-fries and curries, served over rice or in larger, a la carte portions. Roasted pork belly was stir-fried with Chinese broccoli and enough oyster sauce to add a robust, pleasantly bitter undertone. Green curry can be had over rice or with rice vermicelli, and for variety's sake, we chose the latter. Though we were happy with that decision, this tasty blend of coconut milk, bamboo shoots, bell peppers, and a choice of meat could be served over Rice Krispies with little objection on my part. Pulling into the home stretch, we sampled one special -- the Osha spicy dice. Here, cubes of salmon, long beans, and fried basil arrived nestled in a sweet, voluptuous red curry. I plan to investigate further, but I get the feeling that any dish with the word "Osha" in its title would be a winner.

Then came a whole bunch of to-go boxes and the check, which I sent back -- after all, we still needed to try dessert. Choices were limited, but included excellent versions of the two Thai standards: golden, crispy, piping-hot fried bananas with coconut ice cream, and sticky rice bathed in coconut milk and served with juicy slices of mango. As is the case if you start with an appetizer, you'll need more than 10 bucks to sample one of these. You could opt for the free tamarind candies near the cash register -- or just bring an extra five-spot and indulge.

About The Author

Greg Hugunin

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