By Frank Sabatini Jr.
San Diego’s land of strip plazas often house restaurants that appear so utterly unremarkable on the outside, and yet greet with surprising elegance and comfort upon passing their thresholds.
King of Thai Cuisine is one of those places. Ditto for its close neighbor, The Purple Mint Vegetarian Bistro, which is much larger in comparison and serves as your best landmark for finding “the king.”
The nine-table dining room is obscured from sight because of tinted windows and a floppy banner alerting customers the restaurant is now open seven days a week. It used to be closed on Sundays, which is when we sauntered in for a midday meal amid fresh white roses on the tables and golden, Thai statuary perched regally along a wood-paneled wall.
Quietude prevailed and the first thing I asked our endearing Thai waitress was, “Who is the king?”
With a chuckle she said the restaurant is family-owned while indicating the chef is a woman from Thailand named “Amy.” It was indicated she might also be part of the ownership. Though not in the house at the time, it turns out the king of this quaint eatery is a queen. And her food is rather regal.
What we saw pass our table were pretty presentations of sizzling “Bangkok steak” with carrots and pineapple; a mound of pad Thai noodles festooned in ground peanuts; and a wide, shallow bowl of mussels strewn with ginger, bell peppers and fresh basil.
Though tempting, we set our sights on other items, starting with house-made crab rangoon, a rather pedestrian dish born from San Francisco’s tiki culture of the early 1960s.
Adopted soon after by Thai kitchens across the country, these crimped pastry purses are stuffed with cream cheese and crab — in this case the imitation stuff, which equates to pollock. (King of Thai’s crab-fried rice, however, uses real crab.)
As with crab rangoon anywhere, the seafood inside is barely detectable. These were no exception, although the interplay between the delicate pastry shells, the warm cream cheese, and a dipping sauce resembling apricot-orange marmalade was mouthwatering, if not dessert-like.
My dining companion caved into his requisite Thai dish of yellow curry. He chose chicken from a lengthy list of protein options that also include calamari, roasted duck, salmon, scallops, mock duck and more. From a 0-to-10 heat scale, he opted safely for 1.
Compared to red and green curries, the yellow version is creamier and sweeter due to extra measures of coconut milk. Yet this carried better complexity than others, due perhaps to higher doses of fish sauce and cilantro that normally go into the recipe.
Stocked also with carrots and potatoes, my only caveat was that the latter were a bit under-cooked, which didn’t faze my companion in the least.
Behold the Thai barbecue chicken. If you like thigh meat with charred edges, this generous pile of boneless, skinless poultry will wow you.
The chicken is marinated in ginger, lemon grass, and garlic — and served with rice and slightly spicy tamarind dipping sauce. Our waitress said the chicken is “a little wetter” compared to the barbecued birds served in her native Thailand. Indeed, the aromatic meat glistened with flavor and was tender enough to cut with a fork. It will be the reason I return soon.
The menu appeals to a wide audience with commonplace dishes such as egg drop soup, drunken noodles, Thai fried rice, and the colored curries. Conversely, diners who enjoy veering off the beaten track will find items such as avocado curry with a choice of protein, pineapple-curry duck, and deep-fried pompano (whole fish) topped with hot basil sauce.
Lunch specials are available from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday. They range from $8.95 to $10.95 and include a main entree with Tom yum soup, a house salad, a vegetable spring roll, and a cream cheese wonton.
— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of ‘Secret San Diego’ (ECW Press) and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.