I can remember when Thai food was new to Los Angeles in the early '70s. Back then, I'd go with big groups of friends for major feasts. There was also a certain shock value. I seem to remember staggering out of the restaurants, mouth burning, face flushed and ears tingling.
These are no longer the sensations I seek from Thai food. Now I'm more interested in savoring the subtle --the combinations of sweet, sour, tangy and exotic that make up the marvelous Thai taste. It's what I was looking for when I took my family to Tipps Thai restaurant in Ventura.
A friend of mine told me to go there, assuring me that it was the best Thai restaurant in the Tri-County area. He especially recommended the spicy eggplant sauteed with garlic, chili and basil. He must have told everyone he met that week about Tipps, because when we arrived on a Saturday night the place was filled, and people were waiting for tables.
Situated in a storefront on Ventura's thrift-shop row, Tipps has a surprisingly elegant dining room with booths upholstered in tropical fabric, blue tablecloths, pink napkins and peach walls. Low-hanging paper lanterns cast a rosy glow. As busy as it was, the place had the tranquillity of a private dining room, the kind of place that has a calming effect on children and encourages their best behavior.
We started with a chicken-on-fire that came with pickled garlic sauce. It was wonderful, with a lemon-like flavor mixed with a delicate garlic taste that permeated the moist meat. We fought over the scraps of it.
The chicken-coconut soup was not as creamy or sweet as some I've had, and I liked this one better. The chicken pieces were almost too big, but I liked the funny little fairy mushrooms. Spicy-and-sour shrimp soup was filled with exotic bits of green. The flavor of this soup arrived in three waves: first the sour, then the lemon grass and herbs, and finally the spiciness.
By the time our entrees arrived, we would have liked clean plates. I had to shove aside chicken bones and shrimp tails to make room. An excellent deep-fried fish came with sauteed vegetables in a Thai-style curry sauce. Spicy fried rice was spiked with delicious cooked green peppers, beef, onions and fresh tomatoes. The ground chicken salad was weird, we all agreed, and wonderful--all minty and lemony.
I thought the seafood special had the best sauce of all; it had the flavors of ginger, mint, lemon grass and lots of cilantro. It came with mussels and nice squid, big pieces of fish and slightly bitter clams. The kids' favorite dish was the flat noodles with broccoli and beef in a fairly plain sauce. It came with a thick clump of noodles and the best broccoli I've ever had: bright green and slightly crunchy.
The restaurant has a vegetarian menu as extensive as the regular menu. We tried the sweet-and-sour tofu. It didn't persuade me to switch to a tofu diet any time soon, but the sauce was delicious.
As I was finally admitting to myself that I couldn't eat another bite--my stomach had been telling me this for quite a while--I realized we had completely forgotten to order the spicy eggplant. "Oh," I said to the waiter, "we'll have to come back." He smiled and nodded as if he heard this all the time.
512 East Main St., Ventura. (805) 643-3040. Open for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner Monday through Saturday 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Beer and wine. Dinner for two, food only, $11-$19.