Yum Thai Bistro: Everyday Thai with style
I attend a lot of conferences and events, with the inevitable gaggle of people at the end of a day hanging out and discussing whatever we just saw. Occasionally someone will adjourn one of these gatherings with one of the loveliest inquiries in the English language, namely “Want to go out for Thai?”
For me, the answer is nearly always yes. Not only is it one of my favorite cuisines, Thai restaurants are usually quiet enough that we can keep the conversation going, and they’re generally inexpensive enough that nobody’s budget will be strained.
This week I hosted a conventioneer who had actually lived in Thailand, so when the choice of venue came up I steered our party toward the Yum Thai Bistro in Redondo. I had never visited the restaurant, and the chance to have an expert along for the evaluation was too good to miss.
The décor made a favorable impression. The stylish but serene interior is enlivened with murals of stylized lotus plants and a beautiful, lighted wood sculpture of a Thai mask. There is plenty of space between tables, and the Thai pop soundtrack was low enough that conversations were uninterrupted. The menu offers Bangkok style food with a few Chinese and fusion items that are given a Southeast Asian twist.
We decided to start with larb, a ground meat salad that is almost always made with chicken or pork in Thailand but is offered with chicken or beef here. (Thais eat very little beef because they have water buffalo rather than the animal we know. The country raises few cattle and imported meat is expensive.) The beef version here is essentially hamburger mixed with marinated shallot, mint leaves, scallions, lime juice, ground toasted rice, mild fish sauce, and a mix of herbs and chili. We hadn’t specified whether we wanted it mild, medium, or hot and we got the gringo version. There was enough chili that you could tell that it was there, but the balance was slightly off because the essential balance of this dish involves lime and chili and only the chili had been cut back.
For the rest of our meal we selected crispy trout, massaman curry with tofu, spicy basil eggplant with chicken, orange chicken, pad see ew noodles with pork, and both regular and garlic rice. The crispy trout was a fusion dish, a fish that doesn’t live in Thailand, served alongside a vegetable and green apple mix that includes cashews, onion, cilantro, and lime. A restaurant in Thailand would have used tart and sour green papaya rather than apple, and the sauce elements would be separated from the greens and papaya and cooked down so the textures are less distinct. The fish had been filleted and breaded with what looked and tasted like a beer batter rather than a Thai cornstarch or rice flour breading, and adding a bit of the vegetable mix just before popping a forkful in your mouth gave us nice hot and cold textures and flavors. The result was almost like a Thai-French fusion and worked very well.
Spicy basil eggplant is often explosive thanks to a particularly pungent variety of that herb that the Thais cherish. If you drive past a street cart where someone is making this dish you might be temporarily blinded by the fumes, which makes me wonder whether traffic accidents are common downwind. That was dialed back for the version here but the flavors were in balance, with lightly sautéed bell pepper and mushrooms contributing to the mild eggplant. It wasn’t an outstanding dish, but everyone at the table liked it.
The orange chicken was a bit of a disappointment only because the description led us to expect something more interesting than what arrived. The menu mentioned an orange and cherry tomato sauce, but none of us could taste any hint of tomato – it was the standard Chinese-American dish of deep fried chicken chunks in thick, sweet orange sauce. It was well made for what it was, but I had hoped that tomato and Thai spicing would be combined for something more compelling. In Thailand you often get deep fried chicken with plenty of chili in the breading and a sweet dipping sauce. Something that came closer to that would have been more interesting.
The other two dishes both tasted like they had been altered to match California ideas about healthy eating. Our expatriate friend had enjoyed pad see ew, flat rice noodles with chicken and broccoli (in Thailand it was with pork and ginger), for breakfast almost every day. These are usually slightly oily and flavored with black pepper and garlic, but the version here was a bit dry. That might gladden the heart of someone watching their fat intake, but that oil helps enhance and blend the spices. Without it this came out as not just mild, but bland. The massaman curry was similarly low in oil, and the flavor balance was off, besides. It’s usually made with a spicy red curry that owes something to the influence of India, and the very name massaman comes from the word Muslim. This was made with a creamy, rich, and mild brown curry that tasted mainly of coconut milk and peanut, the spices almost a whisper in the background. There was also a lot of potato, which added further richness and starch. It was the only item that didn’t work by Thai or American standards, and that I wouldn’t order again even with a request for more traditional spicing.
Wine and beer are offered with a little bar for those who feel like being social over it, and so are the usual Thai iced teas and sodas. We didn’t happen to be in a mood for alcohol or caffeine, so just had water with our meal this time. The bill came to eighty dollars, and we departed full for only twenty bucks per person. The cooking was generally good though not bold, as might be expected in an area with a tiny Thai clientele. It could have been a bit more assertive without scaring off those who are spice averse, and I’d recommend that if you like it hot you tell them when ordering. A condiment tray is available if you ask, and if a group with varying heat tolerances is dining that will help matters, but it’s not the same as cooking the spices down together. Those quibbles aside, the welcome is warm, the environment pleasant, and there were enough things that worked to let us know that they know their business.
Yum Thai Bistro is at 1888 ½ Pacific Coast Hwy., Redondo. Open daily 11 a.m – 10 p.m. Parking lot, wine and beer served. Wheelchair access okay. Some vegetarian items. Ask if meals contain fish sauce if that is important. Menu at YumThaiBistro.com, phone (310) 316-1188. ER
by Richard Foss