If you've eaten Thai food in America you know the Thai two-step: Pick one from Column A (a menu of Top 10 Thai dishes) and one from Column B (protein options like beef, chicken, shrimp, tofu, duck and “mock duck”). You can have your color of the rainbow (red, yellow, green) curry, drunken noodles or Pad Thai with any protein you like. That's the Thai two-step.
Now, your intrepid food writer is supposed to tell you that the Thai two-step is not “authentic.” It's nothing like what you would get at Portland's Pok Pok Restaurant where Andy Ricker, “the master of authentic Thai food,” offers dishes that elude that two-step. That's the same Andy Ricker who has written about “the absurdity of authenticity.” And he's right. It's not lack of authenticity that is the problem with the Thai two-step. It's boredom. Those same Top 10 Thai dishes cannot be all there is to Thai cuisine. That's the problem.
Amarin Thai (3843 Richmond St.) in Hillcrest offers Thailand's legendary street food as an approach to solving that problem. Bangkok is regularly rated among the Top 10 street food cities in the world, with Virtual Tourist ranking it number one. Whether roadside, riverside or down a narrow alley, some of the best bites in Bangkok—and throughout the country—come neither from restaurants nor homes but from the street.
Amarin brings a bit of that street food culture to San Diego with its “Sidewalk Menu.” Take, for example, the grapow noodles—wide rice noodles stir-fried with minced chicken, sliced Thai bird chilies, bell peppers, onions and basil. It's the basil that is the key to the dish, pulling it all together.
The Sidewalk Noodles is another good choice—wide rice noodles stir-fried with chicken, egg, bean sprouts and green onions with a side of Sriracha. The dish is broad and comforting with flavors that speak of the streets of Yaowarat, Bangkok's Chinatown, where it is a popular offering.
Perhaps my favorite item on the Sidewalk Menu is the Issan fried rice, from Thailand's Northeastern region, abutting Laos and Cambodia. The dish consists of stir-fried jasmine rice with egg, garlic, onions, green onions and cilantro and features a terrific Issan-style sausage, garlicky and porky. It's a simple dish—just a stir-fry with some sausage and cucumber—and all the more wonderful for it.
Amarin also has a more conventional Thai menu (complete with two-step). The spring rolls and curries—indeed, most of the rest of the menu—was essentially what you've come to expect. But the “drunken noodles” (so-named not because the dish contains alcohol or was prepared by drunk cooks but because it was intended for drunken diners) reminds you why those are Thai Top 10 dishes. Spicy with savory chunks of chicken, the noodles are done well.
But when Amarin takes you to the street, they're taking you somewhere you should want to go. It's different, it's not boring and you don't have to get there with a two-step.