Bangkok 3 has always been a strange room. When it opened eight years ago, it made a deserved splash: a downright fancy Thai restaurant, complete with linen tablecloths, at the beach. There's nothing quite like eating mee krob with a view of Balboa Pier.
But that main room--it's amazing how a conversation three tables away could force itself on your ears. The restaurant dealt with the problem by pulling curtains that divided the room into smaller, more claustrophobic sectors with hospital-bed overtones.
Ordinarily, I wouldn't write about a restaurant just because it opened a new wing. But for Bangkok 3, I make an exception. The new room is a relief.
Its walls are covered with bizarre New Wave murals of Thai temple dancers floating among saxophones and radios (reminiscent of the flat, eerie visionary art by people who say they've ridden on flying saucers). Still, it is calmer than the original room, quieter, and not so relentlessly bright--the prevailing color is a sleepy shade of apple green.
They don't seat you in the new wing, though, unless you have an unusually large party or the white-on-white room of echoes is full. And perhaps a lot of people positively like looking out the window and listening in on each others' conversations. I prefer to eat among the Close Encounter murals.
As for the menu, Bangkok 3 is still serving the same high-style Thai food that earned it a reputation. Dishes are always bright and pretty, adorned with curls of green onion, cherry tomatoes carved into rosettes and artful scatterings of herbs.
It must take cartons of oranges a day to make the twisted orange slices that snake through most plates (as many as three of them in a single dish, a sinuous wavelike pattern). Bangkok 3 must have an orange budget the way a French restaurant has a flower budget.
The food, itself, tends to be rich and meaty--in other words, quite to the American taste. Wing kai, stuffed chicken wings, are stuffed so full of meat that they are larger than drumsticks, a strange sort of pork-chicken sausage. Phath thai (other restaurants usually spell this pad thai), a familiar Thai dish of sweetened transparent noodles mixed with peanuts and meats, is particularly heavy on the meat, and the Thai spring roll is almost like breakfast sausage in spring roll wrapping.
Dishes may be sweet, as well as rich and meaty, such as the nua satay. Usually a sort of miniaturized beef shish kebab, here it is slices of very tender filet (they look stir fried, there are no skewer marks at all) with a dumbfoundingly rich, sweet peanut sauce. The extreme of this sort of thing is the shrimp served in a hollowed-out pineapple, in a sweet-sour sauce of pineapple and (unless I miss my guess) coconut. It's a sort of shrimp-in-pina-colada--quite irresistible to an American sweet tooth.
Sometimes, though, this menu is surprisingly foreign. "Naked shrimp"--supposedly the hottest dish on this menu (it will not raise scar tissue on the average Californian's mouth)--comes in a sweet-sour pepper sauce flavored with ginger and black, ominous-looking shrimp paste. An overcautious person who merely smelled it before taking a bite might balk at the funky aroma, but the fermented shrimp paste is actually the most attractive thing about it--until you've taken that first bite, that is.
In fact, although Thai food has become fairly familiar over the years, there are still some things here I haven't seen at other Thai restaurants. One is the "vegetarian appetizer," taro todd. It is virtually the same deep-fried bird's nest we know as a potato basket, except that it's crisper because it's made of taro root.
Prices are more appropriate to a beach restaurant than a Thai hole-in-the-wall. Appetizers go from $4.50 to $5.50, salads $4.25 to $5.50 and entrees $7.75 to $13.50.
101 Palm Ave., Balboa Peninsula.
Open for dinner Tuesday through Sunday. Carte Blanche, Diners Club. MasterCard, Visa accepted.