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Savage Flavors: Large painted wooden animals lurk near the entrance of High Thai.

The Thai Is High

A saucy reincarnation of the original flagship, the new High Thai has been swathed in an altogether showier sarong

By Andrew X. Pham

THERE CAN BE NO DOUBT that Thailand has been "discovered," now that Hollywood has made her the exotic star of several recent blockbusters. Movie-going Thailand groupies can get an even closer encounter with this Southeast Asian beauty by walking across the Saratoga AMC 14 Theater parking lot for a visit to High Thai, home to authentic, spicy Thai food.

High Thai is a saucy reincarnation of the old San Jose flagship restaurant, which managed to retain a loyal following despite its water-stained walls and "brokedown palace" feel. Although the menu, prices and moniker reveal their sisterhood, the new High Thai has been swathed in an altogether showier sarong. The outside of the building is dressed in a modern-yet-A&W-esque purple and squash tone, suggesting bold flavors within.

Walking into the new High Thai is like strolling onto a sunny outdoor patio. An airy interior in odd Asian/Victorian style, which can only be described as California Colonial, accommodates a casual scattering of green-washed rattan chairs and linen-covered glass tables. Large painted wooden animals lurk near plastic trees that are literally planted into the bright tiled floor. Potted greenery lends authenticity to the courtyard motif, and large, deep-seated booths border the space like hedges against the real corporate jungle visible through wrap-around windows.

On slow afternoons, the restaurant staff congregates for meals, chitchatting against the soft Thai music tinkling in the background. The service is invariably friendly, casual and helpful. And although the waiters say everything is good, they have an uncanny insight into what people generally like.

For a very long time, High Thai has been a destination for office lunches and reliable favorite dishes--though we have heard purists complain that the original restaurant's flavors were watered down. Its new kitchen, on the other hand, is definitely not abashed about flavoring food. Here you'll find eye-opening, sinus-clearing dishes, if that's your cup of Thai iced tea.

We began our adventure with miang-kam, the seven seas salad ($6.95), and a rousing beef satay ($6.95). Since it was still early, we threw in a lunch special: squid with sweet basil and chile ($6.95). The squid caught the accompanying pungent, slightly sweet sauce inside sculpted curves, making each bite a textural surprise. Our satay was skewered to perfection, cooled somewhat by a mild peanut sauce and cucumber salad. However, it was the miang-kam that ushered in the meal's fun. Seven ingredients--dried shrimp, onion, lime, ginger, coconut, peanuts and chiles--were laid aside a bowl of spicy Thai sauce and a plate of lettuce. We took the cool green leaves and greedily wrapped ourselves some bulging Southeast Asian "burritos," dipping them in sauce until our fingers dripped.

We tend to use tom-kha gai--that famous chicken soup of coconut milk, galanga and mushrooms ($8.95)--as a litmus test for Thai restaurants. High Thai's rendition passed with flying colors. The ingredients' flavors rose above the heat of the soup, which, although rich, did not choke with coconut milk.

We continued to thoroughly sample the remainder of High Thai's over-150-item menu, unhindered by the breadth of food we had already consumed. Unfortunately, two items we ordered were mistakenly switched. We asked for the pineapple fried rice ($9.95) and the Siamese seafood ($13.95) and instead received the fried rice with chicken and sambal udang, but the replacements did not disappoint. The rice and chicken ($6.95) was more flavorful than its common Chinese counterpart, and our sambal udang ($10.95), a traditional Malay dish of spicy sauce over shrimp and coconut rice, was so fiery that our server's error was literally seared out of our burning heads.

A piquant catfish and eggplant dish ($12.95) reeled in our senses with a zap of tamarind, and by the time we tasted our mussaman stew ($8.95), we were appreciative of this relatively mild rendition of beef curry. The string beans with fresh ginger ($7.95) embodied a calm befitting the many Buddhist vegetarians sure to enjoy this dish, and it served as a palate cleanser between heartier bites.

High Thai's dessert list showcased Southeast Asian fruit, but suspecting the rambutan and lychee to be frozen or canned, we opted for less exotic sweets. The fried bananas ($3.50) were appropriately sticky and sweet. Ultimately, it was the coconut ice cream with Thai fruit ($3) that rescued our singed taste buds--a blessing we accepted with grateful tongues.

For those who love tropical heat at the tip of their chopsticks, High Thai is one destination not to be missed.

High Thai
Cuisine: Surprisingly authentic Thai
Ambiance: Casual, with colonial charm
Menu: Appetizers and salads $6.95-$10.95; full dinners $7.95-$14.95; lunch $6.95
Hours: Mon.-Fri. 11am-2:30pm and 5-10pm; Sat.-Sun. 11:30am-10pm
Address: 5210 Prospect Road, near Saratoga Avenue, San Jose
Phone: 408.873.7630
Extras: Absolutely no MSG; vegetarian-conscious

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From the March 23-29, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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