Di Chan Thai Restaurant 5535 Claremont Mesa Blvd. 858-569-0084
The smiling, wiry man moves amongst the cluster of tables with a fluid grace, dancing physically and verbally with his patrons. “Hey there, how are you? Usual today?” He dodges waitress with plates on the left-“Why no wife today?” He sidesteps a customer coming from his blind side-“Another glass of tea? Coming right up.” He spins around a chair and in a flash is heading towards the kitchen.
Boundless in energy, Wit, Di Chan's magnanimous owner, deposits the glass of tea, snatches up a trio of menus and bounces towards us, a svelte gazelle of a host still sporting the omnipresent smile. “Three? Excellent, this way.” The seemingly incessant banter continues as he glides through the already full front room and leads us to our table in the back. Silver inlaid tapestries adorn the walls depicting classical Thai scenes; dancers weaving mysterious, ancient tales without words, musicians producing sounds perhaps never to be heard by Western ears, a hubris-filled tourist with a mouth-full of Thai spice furiously attempting to quell the flames by pouring bottle after bottle of Sing Ha Beer down his throat as Bangkok tuk-tuk drivers mock and heckle him.
OK, maybe the last one doesn't hang on Wit's wall. Rather, it is burned-pardon the pun-in my memory from a year of living in Thailand.
Hoping to butter-up our host, I hit Wit with a little Thai, “Sawadee kup. Sabadee mai kup?” (Hey, how are you doing?). Wit responded in English that he was feeling fine and proceeded to do something that sent a shock of disbelief through the restaurant. He sat down. He then picked up a menu and guided us through our order, “To ensure you don't choose anything boring,“ he added mischievously. “And three bottles of Sing Ha,” I added as he bounded out of his chair to place our order. (Sing Ha is basically glorified Busch, lacking the kick to be considered comparable to even a simple, domestic Bud. It is, however, nostalgic for me and brewed by Buddhists, so every sip builds karma and decreases suffering in the world-how nice.)
Soon Wit was back with the drinks and the appetizers. He had chosen a Thai classic, Namm Soht. A limey concoction of marinated, shredded pork, fresh ginger (a bit heavy for my taste), onions, peanuts and coriander, Namm Soht is not for the faint of stomach. In Thailand it is prepared with raw pork and fearlessly eaten by the iron-stomached locals and courageous tourists, usually guaranteeing at least a day or two of staying “close to the throne” for the latter group.
At Di-Chan, the pork is cooked, but the spirit of the dish is maintained and managed to give me an evening of “Siam Syndrome.” It is a tasty dish, however, and good enough that I still ate my leftovers the next day. Angel Wings, boned chicken wings filled with diced chicken, mushrooms, and glass noodles, is a less traditional appetizer that is lightly breaded, fried to perfection and served with a sweet and spicy chili dipping sauce-one of my favorites.
One of the beauties of Thai food is that when cooked properly, most dishes tend to maintain their flavor and blend well with-and are not overpowered by-the chilies and other spices, so when Wit started out our entrees with a “very spicy” Pad See Lw, I was not concerned. The wide noodles are smothered in a salubrious mix of veggies, shrimp and a semi-sweet brown soy sauce that Wit decided should be matched with bowls of Panang Curry.
The pride of Di-Chan is the homemade curry paste, and the Panang Curry did not disappoint. Hypnotized like siren-crazed Greek sailors by the redolent bowls before us, we greedily downed the rich mixture of chicken and bell peppers in coconut milk.
Soon Wit's grinning face cycloned past us. “See, I told you you'd like the curry,” he called out as he disappeared into the kitchen. Indeed, the curry is hard to beat. At first glance the “Thai Restaurant” sign that adorns Di Chan's façade over the strip-mall locale suggests a place one would be smart to steer clear of. The red on white simplicity, the lack of adoration and the overall cut-rate aesthetic all bespeak of a place that is not doing much business, a place where perhaps the rent is cheap and the owners are just making ends meet.
But do not be fooled. Wit and Di-Chan serve up some of the most authentic and delicious Thai cuisine in the area. And although the prices are low, $6 to $8 for most entrees, the service and quality are impeccable.