Any fool (or foodie) with an Internet connection can tell you about the comings and goings of the latest Michelin-star-chasing "it" chef. But your favorite curry house, noodle joint, or shawarma shop? Those mom-and-pop international eateries operate within a mostly hidden ecosystem, wherein cooks might jump from restaurant to restaurant, or even vanish completely, with nary a press release.
Only the truly food-obsessed might notice a downtick in the quality of a favorite dish and have the wherewithal to inquire about changes in the kitchen staff, and then the doggedness to track down the dearly departed chef.
So it was that in 2006, the family that ran Krung Thep, a tiny but beloved Thai restaurant in El Cerrito, got booted from their original digs and, with little ado, moved the business farther down the road on San Pablo Avenue, taking over a Vietnamese-and-Thai spot in Albany called Da Nang. Chef-owner Charlie Khamruang kept most of the old Vietnamese menu, tacked on his entire Krung Thep repertoire, and renamed the place Muang Thai — only he never got around to replacing the bright yellow "Da Nang" sign outside, so, to this day, most folks aren't aware that there ever was a change. (Krung Thep, for its part, kept chugging along under new ownership until it closed a few months ago.)
Why make note of the change now, seven years later? Naturally, it's because I recently discovered that Muang Thai serves some of the tastiest Thai dishes in the East Bay.
When asked to describe his cooking, Khamruang uses the term "old style," by which he means he uses the traditional techniques he learned from his mother and grandmother as a kid growing up in Nakhon Sawan, a city a few hours north of Bangkok. So, Muang Thai features scratch-made curry pastes pounded with a mortar and pestle, lots of fresh herbs and aromatics, and an appealing rustic quality.
Start your meal by choosing from one of the excellent salads. The yum pla muk, a squid salad, was gloriously wet and messy, loaded with slivers of raw onion and krachai (like a more fragrant, toned-down cousin of ginger) and tossed in a bright lemongrass-and-fish-sauce dressing that had a decent amount of heat to it. The best part was the squid itself: Scored in a crisscross pattern and gently steamed, each piece was remarkably tender.
If it's available, order the rainbow trout special. Khamruang butterflies the fish, removes its bones, and then fries it until the skin crisps. The fish forms a base for a tangy mixture of julienned green apple, cashews, minced chicken, chopped shrimp, fresh cilantro, and a chili-paste-and-fish-sauce dressing. We cut off pieces of fish and used them as a vehicle for picking up the salad, as though we were eating bruschetta or some extra-pungent version of a Chinese lettuce wrap. It was a dish that worked on contrasts — hot and cold, crunchy and soft, and an addictive mix of sweet, sour, savory, funky, and spicy.
Indeed, I was struck by how well balanced the flavors were at Muang Thai. Take a dish like pumpkin curry, a standard at most Americanized Thai restaurants, and one that's almost invariably cloyingly sweet. Muang Thai's version featured chunks of starchy, firm-tender kabocha squash; fragrant Thai basil leaves; and slices of boneless chicken breast. But most sublime was the curry itself, made from a house-made red curry paste base — a deep pool of golden-orange sauce flecked with dots of red chili oil, spicy and savory and only the slightest bit sweet. You'll want to order plenty of jasmine rice to soak up all of the lovely sauce.
(The reader who tipped me off to the restaurant said he once went on an OKCupid date wherein he pitted his new lady friend's favorite pumpkin curry against Muang Thai's version in a blindfolded taste test. She picked Muang Thai's. Needless to say, there never was a second date.)
Another favorite was the pla duk pad ped, which consisted of airy deep-fried catfish "nuggets" and tender-crisp green beans, all tossed in a spicy-and-barely-sweet chili sauce. Yet another, the Northern Thai noodle dish known as kao soi, offered compelling proof that Thai food doesn't need to be scorchingly hot in order to be authentic and, more importantly, delicious. Muang Thai's version features two layers of egg noodles (soft flat noodles topped with a pile of fried crispy ones) served over a yellow curry and house-pickled mustard greens. Although the dish had no discernible heat, it was pure comfort food — mellow and thoroughly addictive.
Other dishes, especially the various salads, we requested at a "medium" spice level, which I found to be pleasantly tongue-pricking but manageable, and I've heard that the kitchen will prepare items "Thai spicy" upon request.
The other nice thing about Muang Thai is that it has something to offer diners with all different levels of appreciation for Thai cuisine. Newbies whose experience has been limited to takeout pad Thai and who don't want to move out of their comfort zone can order the guay tiew gai kua, a simple dish that includes many of the same components (pan-fried rice noodles, chicken, bean sprouts, peanuts, and egg) as its more famous cousin. Khamruang uses fresh rice noodles, cut to about the width of Chinese chow fun, and a sauce — a mix of soy sauce and oyster sauce, plus a squeeze of fresh lime — that yields a flavor-packed dish that's less sweet, and a bit lighter on the palate, than your average pad Thai.
For dessert, there was mango sticky rice, and, although it wasn't peak mango season and the sticky rice was harder and clumpier than I would have liked, I enjoyed the contrast provided by a dollop of savory coconut-milk "whipped cream" and the scattering of crispy orange bits, which turned out to be fried Thai yellow beans.
At Muang Thai, that's the kind of homey, authentic touch that is the norm rather than the exception. In the East Bay, for "old-style" Thai served the way Thai people like to eat it, you'd be hard-pressed to do much better.