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The Definitive Thai

Christopher Gardner

All in the Family: Judy and Sangiam Yaemvathithong, two sisters from northern Thailand, keep the ten-table establishment of Thai Bistro stocked with fragrant cuisine and hospitality.

Relegated to obscurity at the back end of a strip mall, Thai Bistro reveals itself as one of the finest Thai restaurants in town

By Andrew X. Pham

ONCE IN A BLUE MOON, a modest underdog emerges the victor: Thai Bistro is the definitive Thai. It is the least, smallest and youngest in a restaurant row of four. Relegated to obscurity at the back end of a strip mall, Thai Bistro perches on the edge, out of sight, effectively dwarfed by its larger and more established neighbors.

Two sisters from Chien-Mai, a northern province of Thailand, nurture this diminutive diner: Judy Yaemvathithong keeps the books, serves the patrons, washes the dishes and toils as sous chef for her sister, Sangiam, who is without a doubt one of the best Thai chefs in the South Bay.

With the support of their family, the duo keep the ten-table establishment stocked with fragrant cuisine and hospitality. These two things, their true fortes, liven the narrow hallway-like dining room and the long lavender wall punctuated by miniature framed prints. Beyond the simplicity are the orderly details of linen, wine goblets and folded napkins, all minor but telling tales of honest effort and good management.

Under the fluorescent light no music seeps into the room, save the kitchen percussion performed by soloist Sangiam just behind a thin bamboo screen. An alluring progression of rhythm paces out the crafting of a meal: the intriguing metallic shlick-shlack, shlick-shlack of knives being sharpened, the crunch and grind of herbs and spices between pestle and mortar, the staccato clopping that dices vegetables, and the popping gurgle of an excited fryer. In the background, the vent above the stove range hums patiently, its continuous note echoed by a table fan jetting air into the dining space paralleling the kitchen.

We initiated our meal with a papaya salad ($5.50) and a bottle of Singha beer ($2.75), a golden, mild and faintly sweet brew from Thailand. The combination works well because the papaya salad usually doubles as a sort of tapas in Thai cuisine. On leaf-shaped glassware, a generous knoll of julienned green papaya, tossed with tomatoes, crushed lime leaves, ground peanuts, tiny dried shrimps and fresh green beans, hedges a drift of finely slivered carrots. A shower of dressing--tangy tamarind, lemon, chile and fish sauce--hones the crispy sourness and the scent of the green papaya.

We followed this eye-opener with a riveting chicken in coconut milk soup ($6.95). Spicy with lemon grass, lime, galangal and chile, the buttery milkiness of this soup and its ample slices of chicken breast demand special attention. Almost evil with richness, this constitutes a must for fans of coconut soup.

There are two reasons for going to a place like Thai Bistro: inexpensive, high-quality food and exquisite homemade treats available nowhere else. The flurry of 50 entries distracts from the real gems: the house specialties at the back of the menu.

The kitchen has evidently discovered the secret of salmon ($11.95). Served in pa-nang curry, 12 ounces of salmon filets are balanced in a state of dressed nakedness--supple flesh decked in exotic gowns. Sautéed green beans and diced tomatoes stand as mere ornaments in the yellow-red chile passion of pa-nang, the most famous of Thai curries. Scented with sweet basil, the coconut milk reigns in the chile.

Another house special, eggplant prawns ($7.95), takes a different flavor path, employing the salty, murky tang of shrimp paste, a favorite Thai seasoning. Eggplant discs, pan fried to an edgy caramelized sweetness, serve as obedient vehicles for prawns perfectly sautéed in basil and onions.

Mus-sa-mun beef ($5.95) takes curries along an ancient road, one where the flavors are stewed and deepened in a peasant dish meant to keep several days. The essence of this stew is the shrimp paste bedded deep in chunks of slow-simmered London broil. Fresh basil, pepper, scallions, galangal, onion and other herbs arrive to flavor coconut milk, potato, boiled peanuts and carrots. So flavorful yet so balanced--the key to good Thai cuisine.

Each dish does well due in no small part to the accompanying white rice--fluffy, moist and plentiful. And as to the servings, the kitchen is unfailingly generous.

Battered and deep-fried banana quarters glossed with honey and sesame a la mode ($2.75) yield the proper sweet finish to a spicy meal.

It is always a pleasure to make the acquaintance of a fine place in its youth, but given where Judy and Sangiam's passion lies, I suspect, Thai Bistro's charm will endure as the restaurant grows.

Thai Bistro

Cuisine: Northern Thai
Ambiance: simple home kitchen
Menu: Lunch $5.25; dinner $5­$10, takeout available
Hours: Lunch: Mon.­Sat., 11am­3pm; dinner: Mon.­Sat., 5­9pm
Address: De Anza Shopping Center, 1231 Kentwood Ave., #F, Cupertino
Phone: 408/255-3429

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From the August 22-28, 1996 issue of Metro

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