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The Thais That Bind 

Your Place

Wednesday, Aug 23 2000
The curmudgeon's wife liked Your Place (a trim little Thai hideaway in Berkeley's northern reaches) as soon as she walked in the door and beheld the carefully imported aesthetic, sniffed the good smells wafting in from the kitchen, and absorbed several cubic feet of the establishment's soul-stroking atmospherics. The curmudgeon refused to submit to such blandishments, however, at least without a struggle. The two had spent a pleasant vacation traversing the landscapes (and dining rooms) of Thailand itself, and to the curmudgeon, Your Place's food wasn't altogether authentic: too spicy, or too subtle, or it wasn't salty enough, or was it too salty? She, of course, thought the dishes were thoroughly tasty and invigorating and authentically rendered -- a good marriage is made up of complementary, not identical, opinions.

As for me, I'm pleasantly surprised and full of admiration if the food I'm eating is authentically prepared, but mostly I'm just happy if it tastes good. There's nothing quite like a slowly steamed, air-dried whole duck served with freshly skillet-roasted salt and pepper, but if someone wants to add cream cheese to their wontons, I won't object. (Quite, I should say, the contrary.) So I'll note in passing Your Place's respect for the hallmarks of Thai cuisine -- bright, lively flavors, culinary balance and cohesion, presentations that excite the eye as well as the palate -- and applaud whatever authenticity it has to offer while ruminating upon its good tastes.

The restaurant's setting earned general approval as well. The theme is burnished wood, with an overhead trellis, wooden figurines, framed etchings, and, at one end of the main dining room, a spotlit altar flanked by lush foliage, with large hanging tapestries and a slender, berobed Thai Buddha standing beneath a golden proscenium. There's even the ambient Muzak so prevalent in the venue's mother country. The resulting mood -- tranquility itself, with a sense of balance and plenitude emanating from every corner -- worked its restorative magic, and the curmudgeon, and I, and the rest of our variously life-bestressed party relaxed into a pleasant evening of eating and drinking.

Thailand is the only Southeast Asian nation that hasn't been besmirched by European colonials, and as such its cuisine is absolutely singular and largely unsullied by foreign influence, a rich, subtle mosaic with none of the rough edges encountered where (to coin a metaphor) Gouda is dropped amongst the rijsttafel.

The people of northern Thailand arrived on the scene sometime after the central Thais, never quite hooking up with their Bangkok brethren, and today the northerners share greater ethnic and culinary ties with their neighbors the Laotians; just about the only difference between the two is their border, which was established by the French. There's an earthy northern hint to Your Place's menu -- a menu notable for its many seldom-encountered dishes -- that is best sampled in the som tum, a green papaya salad. The bright, crunchy snap of this refreshing dish, which makes an ideal, stage-setting, palate-cleansing meal-opener, is highlighted here not only by the crisp, shredded fruit, the ground peanuts, the lime juice, and the tangible heat of the chili pepper, but by a soothing hint of tomato to cushion the flavors.

The aforementioned flavors -- peanuts, lime, chili, plus lemongrass, basil, coconut, and a few others -- are the basic building blocks of Thailand's cuisine, repeated in a series of culinary variations, and at Your Place the variations are varied enough to offer several interesting options. Another salad, the neau yang nuk tok, combines mint and lime with onion and thin slices of smoked beef, resulting in a dish at once bracingly refreshing and richly satisfying. Phla koong mixes onion, lime, lemongrass, and chili paste to add zip and zest to a platter of plump, smoky-sweet grilled prawns. Conversely, the immense, cool, rice noodle-wrapped shrimp rolls depend on their tangy dipping sauce and fresh vegetables for flavor; the result is fresh, elemental, and gratifying.

Two classic starters reveal the kitchen's aptitude for the tried and true. The skewered chicken offered in the gai satay is remarkably succulent and delectably marinated in five-spice, and for once the usual dipping sauce doesn't taste like Skippy peanut butter. And the tom kha gai --chicken-coconut milk soup -- is one of the highlights of the menu, a fragrant microcosm of the Thai-dining experience. Spicy, citrusy, light, refreshing, and creamy all at once, it gets its body from big, moist chunks of chicken breast and thick, meaty mushrooms, with lime, lemongrass, and galanga spiking the rich coconut milk, while the whole thing is served with appropriate Thai splendor in a kettle kept hot by a flame dancing through its central chimney.

Show biz is also available with the kao pad sup-pa-rod, in which fried rice ribboned with shrimp, chicken, pineapple, cashews, and onions is served up in a hollowed-out pineapple. Unfortunately, as with most such razzle-dazzle, the attractions are purely surface: The featured rice is heavy and ponderous, and its ingredients offer little distinction. Another miss is the pla rahd prig, in which -- ahem -- overly mature pompano is topped with a dense, sticky brown sauce unhelpfully asprig with basil leaves. But there is the pa-nang, an unusual and delicious chicken curry based on peanuts, and -- a triumph -- ped yang, in which the great rich and silky promise of roasted duck, so often thwarted, is fully realized with little distraction: A few earthy spinach leaves are the perfect platform for this beautifully moist and succulent dish. Almost all of these dishes are available without meat, making Your Place a good vegetarian alternative.

For dessert we tried the fried banana with ice cream, which was thick with soggy batter and mushy banana, and more reminiscent of a Santa Cruz corn dog than the tropics, and -- much better -- sticky rice, cooked pure and sweet with coconut milk and complemented by equally nectareous slices of absolutely ripe and yielding mango: a simple, irresistible dish. Singha from Thailand is available along with five other beers, house wine, "young coconut juice" (unfortunately unavailable at our visit), and sugar-and-cream-enriched Thai iced tea and coffee.

About The Author

Matthew Stafford

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