New growth from an old tree [restaurant review]
Thai Dishes in Manhattan Beach has surprising new menu items
After a business develops a loyal clientele, you can’t blame them for resting on their laurels. With the hard work of building a business done, why not relax, give people what they want, and let the money roll in?
The original Thai Dishes in Manhattan Beach could certainly do that without fear or criticism. The distinctive peaked roof rose next to the post office on Sepulveda in 1990 and was a curiosity alongside the otherwise drab Pacific Coast Highway architecture. When they opened the next year they became the first place to serve Thai food in the South Bay. This was less than a decade after Thai food entered the American mainstream, and represented a new level of sophistication for the area. Locals by the hundreds tasted their first pad Thai, red and green curries, and chili-laced soups fragrant with coconut milk and ginger.
For a long time, nothing changed, and regulars didn’t need to glance at the garish menu with pictures of food on multicolored backgrounds. This was where they learned to like Thai food and they knew their favorites, though the more adventurous worked their way through the menu over the years. The graphic style changed after about 20 years, the content not much, until recently. After almost 30 years in business, they started serving what they refer to as “Thai Street Food” and added new dishes to the menu, a mysterious but welcome burst of creativity.
Among the new dishes I’ve tried are the larb roll, moo ping pork, papaya salad with dried shrimp, and herbal fish salad. The larb roll is based on the Vietnamese summer roll, an unfried eggroll made of rice dough stuffed with salad greens and ground chicken that has been mixed with a lime, mint leaf, cilantro, and chili dressing. Larb is usually served with or on a salad. Containing it with greens in a rice roll is a great idea that makes it a manageable finger food. We had asked for the larb to be mild, which was a mistake because it needs at least a little chili kick to balance the citrus. Ask for it medium or more, because mild here is rather tame by the standards of Thai restaurants in the South Bay.
The herbal fish salad was ordered medium and was in fine balance even by the standards of my wife who refers to herself as the spice wimp. It was a standout dish. The base is a mix of raw cabbage with onions, carrots, red bell peppers, and cilantro, with lime leaves and galanga for flavoring. (Galanga is like ginger but a bit more citrusy, with an overtone that can be compared to rosemary or pine.) Over the mix of greens are chunks of simply steamed sole filet, which gives a flavor and texture contrast. It’s one of the best dishes I’ve had here, and well worth a try.
The moo ping was less outstanding, tasty grilled sliced pork with a dipping sauce that had a dash of vinegar, chili, and fish sauce. It’s a good choice if someone at the table is worried about everything being too spicy, because grilled pork with a slightly caramelized sauce is a crowd pleaser, but it didn’t hit the high of some other items. The green papaya salad with green beans and dried shrimp, a specialty of the Northeastern Isaan region of Thailand, will supply the fireworks for those who enjoy a big burst of flavor. When ordered medium it’s zesty and complex, and if you ask for it hot (or if you dare, Thai hot), the citrusy, peppery kick with mild shrimp funkiness will bowl you over. If you’re going to be daring with one dish, make it this one.
Alongside those newer items are old favorites that make a good case for why this restaurant became beloved in the first place. The roasted duck noodle soup is a delightful warming dish for cold nights, and since the meat has been slow roasted so that most of the grease drips off you get the flavor without the oiliness. This can be ordered with several types of noodles. I recommend the flat noodle or egg noodles over the rice noodles, as much for easy eating as anything else. Those flat noodles are also great stir-fried in the dish called pad see you with eggs, broccoli, garlic, and your choice of tofu, shrimp, or meat. When ordered medium the sauce is light and slightly sweet with a delicate garlic and chili flavor, and it changes completely when ordered hot. I prefer the sweetness paired with chili heat, but it’s perfectly enjoyable mild.
Another good choice is the musmun curry, which originated in Thailand’s southern provinces, which have centuries of commerce with India. That legacy can be detected in this dish, which gets its name from the word Muslim. It’s a thinner, lighter curry than the ones you’ll generally find in India, with Thai elements that make it worth sampling to see how the two cultures blended.
To accompany your meal, you might get the Thai iced tea, of course, but if they’re offering their Thai-style cocktails to go then I highly recommend them. They’re made with soju and are low in alcohol but offer a distinctive Thai twist on favorites. Why didn’t somebody think of blending Thai tea with coconut milk and alcohol before? It’s everything I like about iced coffee cocktails, and it fits the flavors of the meal. As of press time they hadn’t decided whether the cocktails will be available to go, so call and check before deciding you must have one.
During the shutdown we can only look longingly at their pretty modern interior and the serene patio that is only used by people waiting for to-go orders. It’s worth noting that their menu has one innovation other restaurants should copy: a note on the menu indicates which dishes are not recommended for to-go orders because they won’t survive the trip without losing their texture. This great idea is undermined by the fact that on paper menus the information is printed in text so small it’s almost unreadable, and is not shown at all on the online menu. I hope they update this, because it’s a model for other restaurants.
Thai Dishes is a reminder that even places that are well established can have growth spurts. Everything you liked the first time you visited is still there, but try some new things to see what they’re up to now.
Thai Dishes is at 1015 North Sepulveda in Manhattan Beach. Open Mon – Thur., 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 4 to 8:30 p.m.; Fri. 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 4 to 9 p.m. Sat. noon to 9 p.m.; Sun noon to 8:30 p.m. Parking lot, no-contact service to cars. Some vegetarian items, but check for fish sauce if you don’t eat fish. (310) 546-4147. ThaiDishesMB.com. ER
by Richard Foss