Monday, January 12, 2009

Restaurant Review: Essence of Thai

So this restaurant review will be sadly photo-less, because I got Essence of Thai soup as carry-out last week when I was too sick to do much more than phone ahead (also, I lack Dwija's preoccupation with--er, interest in, kitschy ethnic-restaurant decor). But the fact that I was even willing to do that should be testimony enough that Essence of Thai soups are worth the trip.

Essence of Thai is a little Thai restaurant tucked into the back of a plaza on 79 South (Temecula Parkway). I believe it's the plaza with the "El Pollo Loco" as its flagship. The restaurant in inconspicuous, and that's a shame, because it has some truly excellent food, and I am not easily impressed (just ask Dwija).

The menu offerings are fairly typical--if you've eaten in a Thai restaurant before, you'll see the familiar categories of appetizers, soups, salads, rice dishes, curry dishes, and noodle dishes. My husband has sampled various curries, including the red, green, and yellow. They're all good. If you're looking for a tasty safe bet, follow his lead and order a yellow chicken curry. They will make it as hot as you like.

The fresh spring rolls are light, the fried ones are crispy, the dipping sauces work well. If you're a noodle person (and I am), the Pad Thai is a safe bet, but I put my money on the Pad Siew. I love pad siew in general--big chewy rice noodles with a dark sweet soy sauce, egg, and broccoli--and I love theirs, too. Order it with extra vegetables if you want to temper the carbed-out feeling after eating a plate full of noodles--the broccoli is tender-crisp and bright green. Or branch out and go for the Rad Nah (then tell me how it is) or the Pad Kee Mao (yummy).

I could go to Essence of Thai and eat only these things and be perfectly happy, and I would keep going back. But the real draw is...the soup.

My favorite soup in maybe all the world is the Thai soup called "Tom Kha"--It's a spicy broth with coconut milk, loads of flavor, and full of vegetables and (typically) chicken or shrimp. The best incarnation of this soup I ever had was at a little restaurant called "Star of Siam" in Soquel, California (if you're ever in Santa Cruz, be sure to stop by). Theirs was loaded with chunks of lemongrass, galangal (a relative of ginger) and kaffir lime leaves, and came in a heavenly vegetarian version with fresh tomatoes, two kinds of mushrooms, onions, and other veggies. I have spent the intervening ten years looking for a Tom Kha that compares. Essence of Thai's does.

It has the galangal, the lemongrass, and the lime leaves (be aware, when you're eating it, that these things are not edible per se--they are like bay leaves, simmered in the soup and then fished out, but not eaten). It has gently cooked chicken breast (I wouldn't mind seeing a vegetarian version), fresh straw mushrooms, onions, tomatoes, and fresh cilantro. It is delicious. Order it as spicy as you like, though you may want to use lots of adjectives in describing how spicy that is. I have had a "medium" that was incendiary and another that left me cold.

If you don't like coconut milk (inconceivable), go for the Tom Yum--a similar soup, but no coconut milk. My daughters adore the Tom Kha if I get it mild, but they also love the glass noodle and wonton soups.

If you've ever had mediocre wonton soup in a mediocre Chinese restaurant, just pretend this is called something else because it is an entirely different dish. The wontons are delicate little dumplings, and they come in a garlicky broth filled with slices of roast pork and baby bok choy. My girls fight over it (well, they fight over a lot of things, but c'mon, this is soup). The glass noodle soup is filled with tiny translucent glass noodles--great texture--ground chicken, scallions, and straw mushrooms in a very delicate chicken broth. Even the least adventurous eater will like it.

Essence of Thai will cure what ails you. They offer free delivery within a three mile radius, or dine in and enjoy the pleasant service. Prices are reasonable, and the soups are meal-sized.

Essence of Thai
Authentic Thai Cuisine
32475 Temecula Parkway (79 S), Suite G103-B
Phone: 951-506-7741
Fax: 951-506-7704
Open for lunch and dinner every day except Tuesdays, call ahead to verify hours.