The toasted ground rice in the pork larb was the first hint that there was something different about Shelter Island's Supannee House of Thai. Too often, that ground rice is a perfunctory presence in larb (ground meat in lime juice, fish sauce, herbs and spices), more an ill-understood recipe requisite than a layer of flavor. At Supannee, it was the key to the dish, providing textural contrast and a deep, earthy, smoky taste.
While San Diego offers good Asian food options—especially Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese and Chinese—it's a different story with Thai. We have plenty of Thai restaurants, just not many good ones. San Diego's Thai dining scene is reminiscent of Chinese restaurants from the baby-boom era: substantially similar menus, flavor profiles with only a passing resemblance to anything that might be called "authentic" and ingredients that aren't necessarily of the finest provenance.
And that's where Supannee is entirely different. The restaurant sources its proteins from local fishermen, ranchers (think grass-fed beef) and vendors. Vegetables are anything but an afterthought. They're sourced from Supannee's own farm in El Cajon and prepared with respect and care to preserve their essential qualities.
Take, for example, Supannee's pad gaprow (hot basil). Regardless of the protein (options included scallops, shrimp, squid, tofu, mock duck, real duck, chicken, pork and beef), the vegetables were the real stars. The al dente green beans were spectacularly fresh and flavorful, and the Thai basil perfumed the dish. The result was balanced both in flavor and texture.
The vegetables in the pad see-ew were more than mere garnishes. Certainly, they complemented the freshly made wide rice noodles with duck (cooked through in the Thai style), garlic and dark soy sauce. But the broccoli—brilliantly flavorful and crisp—was, along with the carrots, one of the dish's key building blocks.
Not everything at Supannee hit those heights. The red curry, for example, seemed almost rote, with a sauce heavy on coconut cream, uncharacteristically limp vegetables and the red chili nearly MIA on the palate. But that was the only misstep among my meals there.
Perhaps the dish that spoke most clearly to what the place is about was the cod sautéed with fresh garlic, chili sauce and Thai and pea eggplants (from the farm), with green peppercorns and Thai basil. The best Thai food is about balancing spicy, sour, sweet and salty elements. The result of that balance is the sensation of a mouth watering from heat, with the other elements bringing the overall effect into harmony.
And as sweet as the cod was, it was those eggplants to which I found myself drawn, repeatedly. Ultimately, the textural contrasts of the skin, flesh and seeds of the little eggplant bombs, as well as their meatiness, tied the entire dish together: vegetables, herbs, fish and sauce. It served to highlight the essence of Supannee: perfect balance of elements of flavor and perfect balance of ingredients with vegetables on equal footing with proteins, and even the toasted ground rice being given its due.