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Laudable Thai Eatery Has 10 Degrees of Heat

July 04, 1991|DAVID NELSON

East accepted West quite some time ago in Thailand, which in the 1800s became the only country in Asia to adopt forks as standard eating implements.

But that's about as far as it went, at least until the spread of hamburgers and related fast foods brought specific Americanisms to Bangkok's klongs . In a gesture that is hard to fathom, the by and large admirable Siamese Basil in Encinitas returns the cultural gesture by garnishing a plate of some of the county's best pork satay with triangles of toasted, supermarket-style American white bread.

You could make a sandwich out of the satay and bread, evidently, and what a waste that would be, because the thin sheets of skewered pork, barbecued to a toothsome finish and served with a smooth peanut sauce sweetened with undertones of coconut milk (the coconut flavor is delicious, and a new sensation compared to the way this sauce is made elsewhere), are exceptionally good and certainly need no further complication. A plate of these is sufficient for two or more to share as a starter.

Siamese Basil occupies a sparely decorated storefront on Encinitas' quaint downtown strip and has an all-American look that could serve as well for a coffee shop. The foreign accents are restricted to the menu, which includes most of the dishes standard at Thai eateries in San Diego County. The appetizer list is perhaps altogether too standard, and, apart from the outstanding satay offers short, dull Thai egg rolls whose only interest is occasional bursts of ginger; the sweet, fried noodles called mee krob ; fried won ton, skin-wrapped shrimp and "angel wings," which are fried chicken wings stuffed with transparent noodles.

Thai food is noted for its heat, which at Siamese Basil first makes itself present among the soups. The restaurant seasons on a 1-to-10 scale according to diner preference, and be quite certain of your party's tolerance before venturing past 4 on this chili pepper Richter scale. The vegetable and silver noodle soups are not highly spiced, but such things as the thom yum gai (chicken soup) and the seafood soup with coconut milk can be ordered as liquid fire, if desired. Seasoning aside, these brews share light and refreshing characters. The menu also offers several traditional Thai salads, dressed with everything from peanut sauce to a tartly spicy lemon dressing to fierce chili sauce.

Thai restaurant cooking is unique in that, in the entree category, it largely offers cooking styles rather than set dishes. Most of the sautes, noodle dishes and curries can be had garnished with a choice of beef, pork, chicken or, for $2 extra, shrimp, or can be made strictly vegetarian by request.

There are quite a number of styles from which to choose at Siamese Basil, including the classic mint leaves and green chili sauce, which can be breathtaking in two senses; the broccoli and brown sauce, very mild and savory; the baby corn, bamboo shoots and mushrooms, again mild, and somewhat akin to simple Chinese fare; and in an interesting treatment that combines cashews, onions and dried red peppers. The silver noodles, mixed with eggs and assorted vegetables (the kitchen used carrots, primarily), was garnished by request with a few strips of pork and was filling if bland, which made it a suitable antidote to the spicier dishes on the table.

Curry choices include the traditional Massaman beef, unusual for its inclusion of cubed potatoes; spicy red and green curries; and the Panang, based on dried green chilies and available with shrimp or a choice of meats. Also quite traditional, and yet rather different, is the pineapple shrimp curry, a quantity of fresh, cubed, tart pineapple and a few auxiliary shrimp (present to literally "flesh out" the serving) in a bowl of creamy, sweet, coconut milk-based sauce heated moderately with chilies and spices. This makes a fine foray into the less-trammelled paths of Thai restaurant cookery.

The excellent list of vegetarian choices extends to simple veggie combinations in curry or oyster sauce, to a pineapple curry made with tofu and, perhaps best of all, to a dish called praram that combines freshly sauteed spinach, crisp strips of fried tofu and a savory, peanut-based curry sauce. An excellent special available whenever the market offers tiny Japanese eggplants is a platter of this vegetable in a dark, medium-hot brown sauce, enriched with ground chicken and liberally sprinkled with whole peanuts. It can be made vegetarian, of course, simply by omitting the chicken.

Like most Thai restaurants, Siamese Basil offers coconut ice cream. Rather more fun, however, is the combination of warm, sweet "sticky" rice with fresh mango, which somewhat defies the Western concept of dessert but is wonderfully tasty.


527 First St., Encinitas

Calls: 753-3940

Hours: Lunch and dinner Wednesday through Monday, closed Tuesday

Cost: Starters and entrees mostly $5.95 to $12.95; dinner for two, including a glass of wine each, tax and tip, about $25 to $50.

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