Now they've gone and done it. They've put a spiffy, upscale Thai restaurant in a shopping mall. What next--mesquite grilling at a swap meet?
Until recently, you knew just what to expect when grabbing a bite at the local mall: summer sausage on toothpicks, free sunflower seeds, flavorless pizza and maybe, on a good day, some steam-table Chinese. I'll say this. They've just made a radical improvement.
The new kid on the block is called Bangkok IV, and it's simply one of the best new restaurants around. Bangkok IV is in the auspiciously gorgeous Crystal Court addition to South Coast Plaza (a shopping mall more beautiful than any mall has a right to be), and even in this locale there is a striking effect on the eye.
The drop-dead elegant design (by Melrose Avenue hotshot Kerry Joyce) is a study in contrasts: high-tech-white ceiling, dark green carpet, white cotton tablecloths, black stoneware service plates. The smallish, handsomely lit dining room is further dominated by a chic hanging wine rack and a giant pastel painting that looks as if it was done by a hallucinating Toltec medicine man. If this is Thai, I'm the man in the moon.
Never mind. Mai pen rai , or "never mind" in English, is the Thai national rejoinder, and it's how owner Aruck (Lucky) Teachanarong responded when I praised his efforts. I love that expression because it so reflects the Thai spirit--acceptance and nonchalance, both Buddhist virtues. Lucky had a hand in Bangkoks I, II and III, but to my mind this is his best outing yet. Fresh orchids, symbols of the Thai royal family, grace all the tables. The designer menu is colorful and descriptive, and a matching wine list is intelligent and full of bargains (such as the wonderfully fruity Bel Arbes white zinfandel or Guenoc Chardonnay). Even service is charming and respectful. It appears that Lucky has really hit the jackpot this time out. Never mind.
Many of the recipes Lucky uses come from his mother, and the cooking has a tendency to be on the sweet side. Thai food back home may be the world's hottest, and things are considerably toned down for local palates. Never mind. If you can stand the heat, get it out of the kitchen. The waiters will be happy to oblige. Don't forget, though, that's 911.
A good barometer for any Thai restaurant is the thom yum goong , the sour shrimp soup flavored with lemon grass and spices. Here you taste more sugar than chili, but what you taste is sensational. In Thailand, soup is taken with the main course, but I suggest you begin your meal with one so you can instruct the kitchen as to how hot you like the food. Then, on to the appetizers.
This is my favorite part of the menu at Bangkok IV. They serve some things I've never tried anywhere, even in Thailand, and most are terrific. Taro todd combines julienne strips of taro with rice flour, cashews, peanuts and celery, all quickly fried into a golden ball that's pure crunch. Nobody can eat just one. Tang-tang , or "general's rice," are squares of crisped rice accompanied by a fiery mixture of cut shrimp and diced pork that is spooned on top. It's very unusual. Star Bangkok are tiny, star-shaped pastry cups with a delightful filling, and they tease the palate just the way appetizers should.
More substantial, but still classed as appetizers, are two dishes made from Pacific mussels, which are shellfish I formerly thought only a mollusk could love. Balboa mussels contain heaps of fresh cilantro and garlic. Bangkok mussels have a plain chili sauce. Both dishes are knockouts, the best dishes on the menu. What happened? "The secret," says Lucky, "is to use the best mussels available. Never mind."
Salads are not as strong as the other courses because there is too much similarity. Basically, you get Thai greens, such as lettuce, spring onion, cucumber and tomato in a sweetish dressing that has an after-burn. The only big differences are the toppings on the salads: such Asian fare as duck, squid, or Chinese sausage ( referred to as Asian sausage on the menu).
That's the only objection, though, and it's a minor one. All the main courses are flat-out winners. Wing kai , the house specialty, are deep-fried chicken wings stuffed to look like drumsticks, with a mixture of chicken, crab and clear noodles. Pork with green beans is dry-fried Chinese style in a hot Thai curry paste and is wonderfully fragrant. Path Thai , another barometer of Thai cookery, is a soft, pan-fried translucent noodle cooked with pork, chicken, shrimp and fresh bean sprouts. It is my favorite of all Thai dishes, and at Bangkok IV it's appealingly sweet. When I asked Lucky why so many of his dishes were cooked this way, he replied: "We cook for the customer as we would cook for ourselves. We like them a little sweet." No complaints here. All work beautifully.
I guess it comes as no surprise, then, that Bangkok IV offers a few Western desserts. They make their own white chocolate mousse and mango cheesecake, and both are surprisingly good. Wash them down with a Thai iced coffee, a syrupy concoction made from a small amount of coffee, a middling amount of condensed milk and a large amount of, you guessed it, sugar. For me, the carbo stops here. I'll take the java, thank you.
Appetizers at Bangkok IV are all around $5, soups are $3.50 to $4.75, and salads $5.25 to $6.75. Entrees begin at $4.95 for a vegetarian plate and run to $13.95 for the excellent barbecued duck.
BANGKOK IV 3333 Bear St., Costa Mesa.
Open daily for lunch and dinner. Beer and wine only. Parking in lot. All major credit cards accepted.