Behind the box

Thai Smile

11110 Coloma Rd.
Rancho Cordova, CA 95670

(916) 853-9554

One of the problems with the phenomenon of the shopping-center restaurant, in which tasty little spots populate the strip-mall corner spaces around giant superstores, is that it can be awfully difficult to spot some real gems. Short of driving around the perimeter of every Wal-Mart and other box stores in the greater Sacramento area, I am doomed always to be missing out on something.

In the case of Thai Smile, the dilemma is compounded by the fact that it’s not only obscured by an enormous Kmart, but also tucked behind a Jasper’s Giant Hamburgers, and the name is missing from the sign at the center’s entrance. I only became aware of the restaurant because a helpful reader tipped me off, noting that the restaurant isn’t getting the traffic it deserves. After a visit, I have to agree. Thai Smile offers all of the usual Thai-menu favorites, including numerous curries and stir-fries for which you can choose the meat or fish, plus some different dishes on the “chef’s suggestions” menu. Its renditions of the basics are light, fresh and well-executed.

Moreover, against the steep odds created by its awkward storefront space, Thai Smile manages to create a soothing, pleasing atmosphere. The service is also understated yet warmly gracious, making the restaurant’s name nicely appropriate. What really brought a smile to my face, however, was most of the food. We started off with one of the best versions of that standby appetizer chicken satay that I’ve ever tasted. It arrived hot and juicy, delicately flavored with turmeric and other mild spices. The creamy, full-flavored peanut sauce was just right with the light chicken, and the accompanying crisp bits of chopped cucumber in a sweetly vinegary dressing were flawed only in that we would have welcomed about five times as much of them.

Our other appetizers, the fresh spring rolls, were not quite up to the same high standard, but I enjoyed them nonetheless. They seemed to have suffered from the restaurant’s small crowd, as the fresh rice-paper wrapper was chewy and tough rather than yielding and flexible—usually a sign that the rolls have been made in advance. The subtly flavored tofu in the filling was delicious, however, and the crunchy shredded lettuce and aromatic leaves of herbs formed a nice contrast to it.

Thai Smile’s menu is particularly strong on fresh salads, with a number of variants on the traditional Thai salad with dried chilies; onions; herbs; and a spicy, toasty, lime-based dressing. Light dishes such as these are perfect for summer’s heat, and here they include mixed seafood, grilled beef, ground chicken (larb) and more. We got the silver noodle salad, which had both ground chicken and tender pink prawns with lettuce, red onions and sour-hot dressing. The noodles were tender and slippery, contrasting nicely with crunchy lettuce.

Less bold, but no less spicy, was the panang salmon. This grilled piece of fish topped with a deceptively smooth red curry-coconut sauce took a while to build up to its full fiery impact. The smoky flavor of the grilled salmon complemented the slightly sweet but zingy sauce nicely. As a plus, the dish was a beautiful pale orange and pink, topped with sliced bell peppers and lightly steamed broccoli. One nice feature of Thai Smile is that vegetables don’t seem to be just an afterthought. There’s also a large vegetarian section on the menu, with lots of tofu dishes as well as vegetarian takes on favorites like pad thai.

Prawns topped with sweet peanut sauce (the same sauce that accompanied the satay) and lots of bright steamed spinach were a welcome relief from the heat of our other two dishes. This simple, mild dish packed plenty of flavor and balanced out the other items we’d ordered. As with the other dishes, its elements all were cooked with care.

The drinks available run the usual, fairly short gamut, but the Thai iced tea was a particularly nice version, slightly less sweet and creamy than one often finds. There are various beers, as well as a few wines by the glass; the choices aren’t great, but the prices are more than fair, and the pours are extremely generous.

Thai Smile is perhaps not breaking the mold as far as Thai restaurants go, but it offers first-rate, fresh takes on a cuisine that’s become increasingly familiar to American diners. Unfortunately, so far this doesn’t seem to be a case of “smile, and the world smiles with you.” Thai Smile was almost empty on our Friday-night visit. It’s worth a trip, though, particularly if you live in the area. This tough-to-spot little restaurant is definitely a hidden treasure in the area’s many shopping centers.