Step down to a bit of Bangkok at Chada Thai
Like a root, I burrowed beneath Chico’s famed “downtown underground” in search of nutrients. It did not take me long to hit pay dirt. In a matter of minutes after I’d walked downstairs to the cozy restaurant, the good people at Chada Thai Cuisine had served me up some of the best Thai food I’ve had—well, since visiting Phuket, Thailand, back in 1989.
As the owners’ 9-year old daughter, Nancy, directed me to my seat and handed me the menu, I couldn’t help but think about the myths of what lies below Chico’s downtown. This awareness, along with the ambience and odors of Chada Thai, added to my already heightened sense of exotica. It was a déjà vu experience sitting down below, tapping into the flavors and aromas of Southeast Asia. Since my last trip to Thailand more than a decade ago, I have had an insatiable desire for authentic Thai cuisine. I found it right here in Chico, underneath 2nd Street.
“Thailand is a country besieged by refugees,” explains Duangdao Tuanthet, who with her husband Somchai co-owns Chada Thai. “Because of this many Thai restaurants in America are not Thai. They carry the influences of Laos, Cambodia or Vietnam—even Chinese cooking infiltrates many Thai restaurants. But not here; at Chada we are authentic.”
“Part of the secret to making authentic Thai food,” says Somchai, who is Chada Thai’s chef, “is freshness. “Every day I shop Chico for the freshest vegetables and spices I can find.”
But another part of the secret has to do with Somchai himself. He learned to cook as a boy working in his future mother-in-law’s kitchen back in the village of Phitsanulok, which is north of Bangkok. “He’d cook all day with my mother,” explains Duangdao. “Then we’d sell the food they cooked out on the streets in front of the house.”
When Somchai arrived in the United States in 1988, he quickly found cooking jobs in the Bay Area. Soon he was working for Berkeley’s famed Cha Am Thai restaurant as a chef. After four years at Cha Am, he and Duangdao spotted an ad in a Thai newspaper about a Thai restaurant in Chico that was for sale.
“We went to see it, and we liked Chico very much,” Duangdao says. That was more than five years ago, and the Tuanthets are still at the helm.
“We’ve been very successful. Chico has been good to us.” So much so that the Tuanthets have opened a second Chada Thai in downtown Sacramento.
I dig down through the Thai basil and green curry smothering the fresh salmon on my plate. Not only am I marveling at the dish, but at its price point as well. I paid a scant $9.95, while the Pad Thai was but $6.95. Try also the Tom Kha, a coconut, chicken and mushroom soup infused with fresh chilies. A pot that serves four costs just $8.95. It’s stunning.
The only downside I could find was the absence of a decent wine list (German Rieslings or Alsatian gewürztraminers are the wines of choice if you were to tote your own in, and yes, there is a modest corkage fee of $7). But the Sing Ha beer is sweet on the palate, where it’s juxtaposed nicely against Chada’s spicy food—which, by the way, can be ordered mild, medium or hot. I suggest the medium; any spicier, you’re likely to break out in sweat.