Ever since ethnic restaurateurs discovered that San Diego is not so devoutly dedicated to the steak-salad bar syndrome as it once seemed, there has been a noticeable increase in the variety and sophistication of restaurants here.
There are at present five Thai eateries in town, not exactly an enormous number but a vast improvement over the situation just a few years ago, when there were none. The encouraging sign within this group is that two of these establishments, the very fine Celadon in Hillcrest and the new Karinya in Pacific Beach, have adopted the point of view that ethnic restaurants can be more than Mom 'n Pop-style operations. In other words, both emphasize service and surroundings as well as cuisine.
Karinya is subtly handsome, its relatively bare walls painted near the ceiling in deep-toned Thai motifs, and its doorways capped with carved wood filigrees. The quiet peach and mint color scheme doubtless is intended to be restful, perhaps to lull the senses so that the jolt delivered by the cooking seems all the more intense.
Heat Comes Out of Kitchen
Thai cooking can be shockingly hot, and while Karinya takes pains to moderate this to suit its patrons' tastes, some dishes nonetheless pack enough chili-generated heat to leave the unwary tongue broiled and begging for mercy. By and large, unless one is a certified fire-breather, it is best not to order a dish labeled anything spicier than medium-hot.
These cautions should not be taken as discouragement, since the Thai method of spicing can result in brilliant, sparklingly defined flavors. (There are also a goodly number of mild dishes that can and should be ordered in tandem with the more fiery creations.)
Just as the French add a dose of cayenne to lobster bisque and other similarly rich seafood preparations, the Thais use heat to intensify primary flavors and to throw subtle background notes into relief. A Karinya specialty called pad talay , for example, uses a fairly simple and basic chili sauce (thin, crimson and potent) to lend definition and richness to the various flavors of squid, shrimp, scallops and flounder in this mixed seafood saute. The dish tastes like a concentrated essence of the sea, as does a good bouillabaisse or other fish soup. The flavors taste clean and fresh, thanks to the hot accent.
Like other Asian cuisines, Thai cooking often combines flavoring ingredients in a way that would seem outlandish in Western kitchens, but produces some lovely results. A dish may include garlic, chili and fresh mint leaves in order to make it simultaneously pungent, hot and sweet (a favorite Thai trio of sensations), or lemon grass and coconut milk to make it tart, sweet and rich. Nuts are added to many dishes to provide an extra texture, and cucumber, always a cooling agent, appears frequently as a garnish or secondary ingredient.
Off the Familiar Paths
In addition to such increasingly familiar appetizers as satay (skewered meats) and mee krob (sweet, crisp noodles), Karinya offers delicate, delicious Thai spring rolls filled with slender "crystal thread" noodles and ground pork; fried bean curd cakes in a sweet chili-peanut sauce, and larb , an intriguing toss of crumbled ground beef with chilis, mint and lemon juice. The Thai toast, an elegant variation on Chinese shrimp toast, makes an especially nice appetizer; ground pork mixed with egg and herbs replaces the shrimp, and diners dip the deep-fried squares in a coolly pungent cucumber sauce.
A special house appetizer called "Karinya corn" was delightful the first time around, but disappointing the second. Basically corn fritters spiked with ground pork and a mild, Thai-style curry seasoning, these excelled when the corn seemed freshly cut from the cob.
The dish that seemed perhaps the most evocative of the genius of Thai cookery was the tom kah gai soup, a creamy bowl of goodness that managed to be at once sweet, hot, pungent and tart. Coconut milk supplied the sweet richness, chili the heat, gingery garanga roots the pungency, and lemon grass a wonderful tartness that threatened to set the mouth in a state of permanent pucker. Another good choice would be the po tak , a classic hot and sour shrimp combination seasoned with plenty of fresh mint.
The Thais even know how to make salads hot, as in Karinya's simple plate of hot and sour shredded carrots ( som tam ), and in the more elaborate yum nuah, a jumble of grilled beef slices mixed with green onions, mint, lemon juice and a strong, hot dressing.
Pick Curry by the Color
Thai cooking reaches another peak in its curries, which like Indian curries are more a process than a result of prepackaged, all-purpose powder. Curry methods are designated by colors (green can be hot, red is very hot, and yellow is usually mild), but the color also indicates fragrance and certain flavor tones.