Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Fine Dining is Alive in Cerritos' Issan Thai Restaurant

Thai cuisine, which is so popular in Southern California, has assumed a level of familiarity here that rivals that of Chinese cuisine. As a consequence, a few of the so-called "original" Thai restaurants in the Los Angeles area have lost some authenticity and novelty. I used to believe that Thai cuisine was engendered by a number of cookie-cutter Thai establishments that served pad thai, chicken barbecue and thom yum koong. These restaurants are a dime-a-dozen here in Southern California, and despite the establishment of more non-franchised Thai eateries, these California icons have dominated the dining scene for so long as to dictate the Angelenos' culinary preference.

In summer 2008, I was proven wrong when I was assigned to write a review of a newly-opened restaurant in the city of Cerritos. That restaurant is Issan Thai. After my first lunch there, I realized that fine Thai dining is alive and well and can be had in some restaurants in Southern California. Thai Issan's owner, a likable dyed-in-the-wool Southern Californian named Thomas Mulvihill, gave me a history lesson on the origin of his restaurant's name. Issan is Thailand's northeast region-- Mulvihill tells me -- where the culinary style is slanted toward spicy and hot. But his most welcome revelation was that Issan-style cuisine was his restaurant's specialty. The cooks, a Thai couple, are his mother- and father-in-law, Linda and Tony -- their Americanized names -- both fine, accomplished cooks in the Thai tradition.

Linda, who had lived in Issan, is a stickler for that region's cooking practices, and Tony, who grew up in Bangkok, is more laid-back. He cooks the straight-up Thai dishes. Of the two, Linda is the outspoken and gregarious type. She tells us she is very proud of Issan Thai because of its adherence to the culinary legacy of Thailand's northeast region. "You go to Phuket (a northern Thailand resort city), and some of the cooks in the restaurants are not even Thais," she rails. What she is trying to say is that authenticity is her claim to Thai culinary nirvana.

We ordered the shrimp rolls to whet our appetite (in photo), and it caught my attention because of the way the shrimp were wrapped, like seashells. We followed that up with the piquant thom yum koong soup, as a foil against the winter chill, then for a main entree, the garlic chicken, and a fried rice. The garlic chicken came nestled on a bed of shredded Napa cabbage. The fried rice had a hint of curry, but the amount was not overpowering as to dull the taste buds. Probably a concession to us East Asians who are not used to too much heat in our food.

Issan had recently raised its prices by about a dollar each for all their main entrees since they opened in Cerritos in 2008. But their portions are proportionately abundant, and I feel that avid Thai foodies like ourselves should pay a fair price for high quality and authenticity; these attributes are evident in their offerings and in the restaurant's ambiance.

If there such a thing as fine Thai dining in the Los Angeles basin, it can be found in a few restaurants like Issan Thai. It is located at a strip mall called Fountain Plaza on South Street, a half-mile east of the 605 Freeway. Don't expect to find a fountain -- a lawn sprinkler is more like it. But there is ample free parking, and the establishment is open every day except Tuesdays.

Linda and Tony have lived in California for many years and had cooked Thai foods almost all their lives, and a few years ago, in their original Thai establishment in nearby city of Norwalk. That restaurant had built a strong and devoted following among Latinos, Anglos, Asians, including a lot of Pinoys, before Tom decided to move a few miles west to Cerritos, right in the midst of restaurant row on South Street. Tom told me that some of these former customers had followed them to Cerritos. He even had some discerning words about the Pinoy's proclivity for Thai cooking. He said that the Filipinos' taste for food is more adventurous and he theorized he was not surprised that Pinoys loved Thai cuisine.

Having been piqued by Tom's choice of Issan as a restaurant namesake, I did a little research and I discovered in "Thailand, The Beautiful Cookbook," written by Panurat Poladitmontri and Judy Lew, and photographed by Luca Invernizzi Tettoni and John Hay that, indeed, Issan (called Essan in the book) had figured prominently in Thailand's history, and not just in it its culinary legacy. "Indeed, more and more frequently, one hears connoisseurs of Thai cuisine proclaiming that northeastern fare is the best in all that country," the authors declared. "Typical Essan dishes can now be found on the menus of the smartest Thai restaurants in Bangkok, and many of those humble side-street food shops are crowded with well-dressed diners as well as taxi drivers," the food writers noted in the book.

As in neighboring Laos, where Linda was born, and in northern Thailand, the food writers noted that glutinous rice is the staple, eaten either as a base for other dishes or as a sweet when steamed in a hollow piece of bamboo with coconut milk and black beans. Typical Laotian herbs such as dill or cilantro (coriander) also turn up as seasonings. "Perhaps in a sort of culinary reaction to their difficult lives, or perhaps merely because some of the traditional ingredients needed strong seasoning to make them more palatable, Northeasterners like their food not just spicy but very hot, and chili peppers are used with greater abandon than almost anywhere else," the authors noted.

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