3843 Richmond St.
Coming out of The Alibi hungry and bleary-eyed, I ran around the corner to Bombay Express, the hole-in-the-wall Indian restaurant I touted last month. An apologetic goodbye letter on the front door stopped me short. I threw my frequent-diner card into the gutter and started home, hands buried in my pockets for melodramatic effect. A red neon sign beckoned to me: "Thai Cuisine."
Not that a Thai restaurant in my 'hood is any great find. I have tried a half-dozen so-so to miserable places within a few blocks. I bolted from the "Best Thai restaurant in San Diego" after two disastrous appetizers, and the "readers' choice" across the street was equally uninspired. But I had never seen Amarin Thai before, set back a few doors from The Alibi. Call me a myopic drunk.
A banner advertised a $4.95 lunch special. Silverware sat in cloth sleeves. A petite waitress ducked to and fro, like the Rain Man imitating a chicken. Encouraged by the full dining room, I sprawled out in one of the outdoor booths and started ordering.
Crispy hot Angel Wings came straight from the fryer, generously stuffed with rice noodles and lightly seasoned beef, by far the best I'd tasted. As is typical with Thai cuisine, the seemingly innocuous coconut soup was peppered with flavor-bombs like ginger root and bay leaf. (As an added bonus, those inedible bits make for charmingly awkward date moments.) I would say the tasty larb salad consisted of fried ground pork sprinkled with fresh mint and served over green leaf lettuce, but then again, the complexity of Thai dishes forces one to make a lot of egregious over-simplifications.
I asked for another menu, and the waitress let out a muffled laugh. "You eat a lot of food!" she exclaimed.
Even so, I barely made a dent. Like all Thai restaurants, the Amarin menu qualifies as a novella. Beyond the 20 or so chef's specialties, there are the standard Thai offerings: chicken, pork, shrimp, squid, duck, mock duck, beef, scallop or vegetables combined with a variety of curry, chili, peanut, garlic, sweet-and-sour and other sauces. After all those decisions, you then choose your spiciness, from zero to 10. (I zealously requested nines, but the kitchen took it down a couple notches, graciously saving me from myself.)
The typo-ridden menu even provided entertainment between courses. Consider this Zen description of the "P.P. Islands" entrée:
"Full of abundant coconut, is the inspiration of this chef specialty mixed seafood with herbs and spices served in a young coconut that lives up to its name."
I tried to order it, but the waitress hinted that the Thai BBQ chicken was "easier to eat." (Maybe they had run out of young coconuts capable of living up to their names.) The glazed, fatty chicken came to the table on a sizzling iron plate. The waitress drizzled coconut sauce over the meat at tableside, which, along with the glaze, gave the meat a hint of sweetness, without the tang of an American barbecue. A sacrificial leaf of lettuce cleverly separated chicken from plate, preventing sticking and burning. The thin lettuce could not protect against the gradual effects of heat, though, and this would be my one complaint at Amarin Thai: they tended to overcook chicken and seafood.
For example, my seafood Gang Ped (a red curry coconut sauce) came well-done despite my request for restraint. Thankfully, the scallops, squid and shrimp were very fresh and survived the grill. Replacing the standard white rice with an order of jasmine fried rice with crisp vegetables was delicious, gluttonous overkill. The showy Choo Chi Prawn was even better-prawn meat and vegetables in a similar sauce, served inside the hollow shell of two enormous freshwater prawns.
My Amarin marathon had a suitably spectacular finish, coconut sticky rice topped with smooth, sweet cream and crunchy toasted nuts, served alongside ripe mango slices. Usually, new discoveries make me giddy. But I felt sincerely grateful to Amarin for having restored my faith in Thai food. Even better, judging by the healthy crowd, maybe this is one favorite that will still be around the next time I stumble out of The Alibi. ©
Better Thai in San Diego? Better dive than The Alibi? Enlighten me at cityeat@SDcitybeat.com.