Ivory Thai Cuisine
859 Hornblend St.
There are certain things that a neighborhood needs to be considered livable. Parks are nice, as is a library. Ample parking is also key. But I won't live anywhere that lacks a quality Thai restaurant.
Not that I haven't, mind you.
Growing up in a toilet bowl of a town in upstate New York, where noodles in tomato paste or pirogues served in a gallon of melted butter were considered "ethnic" dining, so I never had the opportunity to sample traditional Thai food.
Imagine my glee the first time I dove into a spicy noodle dish laced with bold basil, fresh vegetables and chili peppers. I'd like to say I'll always remember that first time, but in the decade or so since my culinary coming-of-age, I've visited the flavorful Thai mistress and sampled her culinary delights so often that our many trysts have blurred into an orgy of pad-wonderfuls, sultry curries and unmerciful heat. No, I can't tell you when I first discovered Thai cuisine, but I can say she has never let me down.
Which brings me to Ivory Thai Cuisine, which, as far as I'm concerned, is really the only choice when it comes to San Diego's Thai restaurants.
Located along a dark stretch of Hornblend Street in Pacific Beach, the exterior is nothing special to behold. A few potted plants line the sidewalk, and rather unflattering photos of menu options fill a window. Pay no attention to all that.
Through the little door and past two orange parrotfish, the interior is simple but bright, and the orange walls feature a few travel-agency-style photos of Thailand.
Ivory's menu offers a variety of appetizers, including steamed or fried dumplings and firecrackers-spicy shrimp wrapped in a wonton and served with a plum sauce-followed by half a dozen soups and nearly twice as many salads, any of which could be a meal.
The entrées are divided into à la carte items, curries, noodle dishes and fried rice options-all served family style-with a choice of tofu, chicken, pork, beef, shrimp or scallops for each dish.
My one complaint, and it's a big one, is that the menu here seems to get smaller every time I visit. Gone is the spicy whole fish, as is the Mee Krob, a tart noodle appetizer and a traditional Thai favorite. Unfortunately, these have never been replaced. But even Ivory's incredible shrinking menu can be forgiven. What they do have is solid. Consistency and affordability-seafood entrées, the most expensive dishes on the menu, top out at $13-are what make Ivory worth visiting.
Judging by the steady stream of takeout and delivery traffic, I'm one of the many who've discovered this gem.
On this visit, my girlfriend and I started with the sate chicken, served skewered after being marinated in coconut milk and grilled. As we were licking the accompanying sweet peanut dipping sauce off our fingers and sipping Singhas, our waitress brought out a large bowl of Tom Yum Kai soup, and though we had ordered a cup, we learned that Ivory's portions tend toward the large end of the scale.
A spicy and sour soup with sliced tomatoes, baby mushrooms and chicken with whole pieces of cilantro, lemon grass, ginger and red pepper in a clear broth, the Tom Yum provided just enough spice to clear the sinuses, and the lemon and ginger combined for an addicting burst of acid.
Slurping up the dregs of the soup, our server arrived with our entrées: a red curry with fish, spicy eggplant with tofu and Pad See Yew, a pan-fried noodle dish served with broccoli.
By far the most visually appealing, the eggplant dish also turned out to be the best of the trio. The royal-purple diced eggplant combined with red peppers, carrots, basil leaves, baby mushrooms and tofu formed a palette worthy of Kandinsky. Off the fork, the perfectly fluffy tofu squares-and this comes from a guy who usually steers well clear of curd-was rivaled only by the eggplant, which dissolved on the tongue, leaving a surprisingly spicy heat in its wake.
Noses running, we turned our attention to an oval dish brimming with red curry and spooned the coconut milk broth containing peas, carrots, red pepper, onion, green beans, basil and bamboo shoots over a mountain of steamed rice. Thick and creamy, the curry enveloped the flakes of fish leaving only silky texture behind.
With so much to live up to, the Pad See Yew fell a little flat, but just a little. Lightly tossed in soy and egg and served with crisp bean sprouts and broccoli, the noodles were pleasantly neutral but hearty.
The absence of dessert options is another shortcoming, but stuffed beyond contentment, I have no qualms saying that though I may live in PB, as long as there's Ivory, it's my kind of town.
Ivory is open from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, closed Monday.