Rice Thai is the maiden venture of Ricky Sudchaitham, a Palo Alto resident who came to the United States from Thailand four years ago, honing his skills in his sister's Albany establishment, Ruen Pair.
His new restaurant is minimalist and sleek, with rich chocolate walls and an interior that's just this side of austere. But ambience aside, in just over a year Rice Thai has proven itself a welcome addition to the lunchtime scene in south Palo Alto. Business folk and others crowd the El Camino Real restaurant for good deals on generous lunch specials. Priced right ($6.95 to $9.95) and served with a small salad, soup and egg roll, the lunches here offer a flavorful midday break.
Ambiance is more important to the evening meal, and during my dinners here I couldn't help but feel it was lacking. But that's just me: The unadorned dining room, doctor's-office music in the background, too-loud phone up front and overall sharp-edged feel to the place might be just what some diners are looking for.
Either way, the food at Rice Thai is good, sometimes excellent. The offerings, while not overly generous, are pretty and flavorful. Your pad Thai or roasted chili beef might arrive on a cool triangular plate, garnished with lemongrass stalks and a nest of shaved carrots on the side.
One of the nicest aspects of Rice Thai is that you can order many of the rice, curry and noodle dishes with your choice of beef, chicken, pork, shrimp, a seafood medley or vegetables and tofu. This flexibility means vegetarians have countless options. What initially appears to be an already generous menu, with 67 entrees and appetizers at dinner, multiplies into hundreds of choices.
Rice Thai calls its version of the classic Thai spring rolls "fresh salad rolls" ($7.50). Different name, but the same familiar chilled appetizer: a supple rice skin enveloping shrimp, fresh mint, shredded carrots and rice noodles, with a mildly spicy peanut dipping sauce. Rice Thai's rolls were tasty, crunchy and fresh.
Similarly pleasant and familiar was our bowl of coconut soup ($6.95 with chicken; $8.95 with shrimp or sea bass). You'll usually find this classic soup referred to as tom ga kai, and it embodies all that is unique about Thai cooking, that delicate balance of spicy, sour, sweet and salty. Rice Thai's version revealed the flavors of lime, chili, coconut milk, lemongrass and Thai basil.
The chicken dumplings ($5.95) resembled pot stickers and contained a slightly rubbery nugget of chicken mixed with flecks of Thai basil. On another appetizer plate, wooden skewers pierced through melt-in-your-mouth chicken satay ($7.95).
A collection of five mini samosas (5.95) arrived in a martini glass with a slightly cloying chili dipping sauce. Ours were a touch overdone, causing the shell to act as an annoyingly resistant barrier to the potato, onion and curry center.
The lemon grass crispy fish ($11.95) was a lovely entree, pretty to look at and even better to eat. A carefully constructed "bird's nest" of crispy rice noodles was home to artfully fried chunks of flaky white fish. Infused with the aromas and flavors of green curry, lemongrass and Thai basil, this was a stand-out dish.
Pad Thai ($8.95 to $12.95) may not be the most adventurous sampling on the menu, but it was one of the best dishes we ordered. Crunchy bean sprouts and firm rice noodles mixed it up with green onions, ground peanuts, the requisite fried egg and very little grease. Hints of coriander and lime stayed on the tongue after each bite.
Another tasty dish was the pad see-ew ($8.95 to $12.95), a savory tangle of wide flat noodles, punctuated with crisp broccoli and stir-fried in a black soy sauce.
It has long been my opinion that mankind achieved dessert perfection with fried banana with ice cream. Tiramisu? Chocolate mousse? Forget about it. Fried banana with ice cream has it all: the tantalizing interplay of hot banana and cold ice cream, the satisfying crunch of the deep-fried coating, the gooey softness of the banana inside, the hint of coconut. Rice Thai hits all the high notes with its version ($6.95). I would return for this dessert alone.
Rice Thai Cuisine
3924 El Camino Real, Palo Alto
Hours: Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 4-10 p.m. Sun. noon-9:30 p.m.