Sometime after the crumb-strewn appetizer plates were whisked away and before the main dishes arrived, I realized that my friends and I had ordered too much food at Lotus Thai. Last-minute revisions would draw the ire of our server and the kitchen staff, so, instead, I accepted the challenge to finish every last bite. I didn't want to leave anything behind for the Styrofoam clamp of those grim to-go boxes. And if the Hillcrest eatery's flavorful appetizers were any indication of the dishes to follow, then I was doing myself a favor.
Lotus Thai (3761 Sixth Ave.) is easy to miss if you aren't on the lookout. A faded orange sign barely alerts passersby of the restaurant's existence. Inside, however, an entirely different story unwinds. There are bronze-colored ceiling tiles and wooden wall panels and bamboo stems poking out of vases. A gold Buddha statue stands in front of a bamboo pillar, possibly pondering the décor. Some may think the interior a bit flashy; others may find themselves transported to a swanky hotel lobby somewhere in Bangkok.
The nice-size menu demanded my full attention, though, so I took a break from observing the setting. I soon discovered that like the décor, Lotus' menu is an elaborate affair, split into sections like starters, salads, soups and curries. Happily, there's no shortage of Thai joints in San Diego—a quick web search yields more than 50 results—and thanks to our familiarity with the cuisine, my grub buddies and I more or less knew what we wanted and navigating the menu wasn't a headache.
The appetizers arrived in a stream of bright yellows and golden browns. If you like sampling several different flavors at once, then I recommend the Lotus Platter, a hodgepodge of spring rolls, shrimp tempura, lotus flower cups, chicken satay skewers and tofu French fries. Satisfyingly crisp, the shrimp tempura won me over with its audible crunch and simple, straightforward taste.
The noodle shrimp tempura was another delight: Lightly fried, egg-noodle-wrapped-shrimp meets a strip of bacon. You can dip the wispy creation into a sweet plum sauce, but I suggest savoring it solo. Shredded green papaya soaked in a spicy lime concoction forms the centerpiece of the som-tum salad, another favorite. A smattering of tomato, carrots and green beans completes the refreshing dish.
The only issue with strong appetizers was that they set the bar high for the rest of the meal. And the principal dishes weren't as solid as the starters. A salty egg, curry and coconut milk combo overwhelmed what little fish there was in the steamed hor-mok halibut cakes. I found the chicken strips in the kra ta curry tough and chewy, while the pad Thai's chanthaburi rice noodles could have been chewier. A thick cluster of green peppercorn added zippy heat to the pad cha seared scallop—but the scallops themselves were slightly gummy.
Despite the confused main courses, I'm eager to revisit Lotus for a second stab at the curries that didn't win me over the first time. But really, I shouldn't even complain: The platters were scraped clean by the end of our meal.