Hit or miss
Thai Issan7235 Franklin Blvd.
Sacramento, CA 95823
Like Sacramento itself these days, Thai Issan has an identity crisis.
You’d never guess it’s the fourth restaurant from husband and wife Bounleuth and Toua Xiong. The Xiongs relocated to this area from Petaluma last fall, where they ran three Thai restaurants over the last 20 years.
Oddly, though, they don’t seem to know who they want to be. This confusion results in a weird atmosphere and vastly uneven dishes.
The first clue is the website, which fails to list pesky details like when they’re open and posts a map that shows the wrong location.
Once you find it, awkwardly facing the west side of 99 Ranch Market in a vast parking lot, the whole front room looks abandoned. Neon signs flash “Open,” but only an empty counter greets you.
The menu lists more than 100 dishes, which are numbered out of order. Exhaustive menus like that usually indicate a lack of focus. Indeed, the offerings come from all over Thailand—and Taiwan.
Thailand’s Issan province borders Laos and Cambodia and is the poorest region in the country. That results in cuisine heavily influenced by its neighbors, with more chiles and less richness than southern Thai food.
If only the Xiongs stuck to that specialty, the restaurant might stand out. Instead, they muddy the waters with more mainstream coconut-based curries and soups. Also, boba tea.
We bet on Issan specialties and ordered the som tum ($6.95), the shredded green papaya salad. The Thai-style version features fewer funky flavors than Lao-style, but even so, it was lackluster.
Laab gai ($7.95), a Lao dish, fared better, with ground, cooked chicken and chopped lettuce. Plentiful fresh herbs perked it up somewhat.
Those were so-so, really, but the veggie spring rolls ($6.95) showed markedly higher quality. The paper-thin wrappers arrived crisply golden brown and paired well with the syrupy dipping sauce.
Then there was the chicken satay confusion. Satay appears on almost every Thai menu in the United States, so it seemed a good gauge of the kitchen. Oddly, our sweet but clueless server didn’t know what it was.
The first version to arrive had tough chunks of grilled chicken and a fiery chili sauce. But—oops—there was a second, more tender version ($6.95), on the expected skewers with a sugary peanut sauce and cucumber salad. She couldn’t explain the mix-up.
The hit-or-miss quality makes ordering a sport. Do try makhur pow Issan ($9.95), since it’s a chicken and eggplant dish that showcases an unfussy but solid preparation in a slightly sweet tamarind sauce.
We also liked the surprising fried pork belly ($10.95), essentially crunchy, thick bacon with mouth-searing green chili sauce.
You can skip the pad khing ($9.95). Even with tender strips of chicken, it didn’t measure up to the standout version at Siam Pa House nearby. Theirs boasts a mountain of stir-fried green beans, while this one contained some wilted mushrooms and onions.
The one noodle dish we sampled, pad khee mow ($8.95), known as drunken noodles, was mediocre. As with the pad khing, it lacked quality vegetables, with the exception of perky julienned galangal.
And then, shockingly, we had the best version of sticky rice with mango ($6) that I’ve tried. The warm coconut-infused rice contrasted the cool, juicy mango and practically cried out for plate licking.
Is Thai Issan a regional restaurant or a mainstream Thai place? Is it a boba tea shop or a confused mess? Yes and yes. I’d go back for the mango and rice in a heartbeat, but for truly outstanding Thai food, I’ll stick to Siam Pa House half a mile away.