Hot or not

Pattaya Café Thai Cuisine

5514 Watt Ave.
North Highlands, CA 95660

(916) 348-6556

People often ask me how I find the places I review, and the answer is that it varies: sometimes by spotting a new restaurant going in (or an old one I hadn’t noticed before), sometimes because restaurants send a menu my way or sometimes through friends. But many of my favorite finds have come from the Internet, which has quickly become the sine qua non of so many people’s work and social lives.

Certain discussion sites and blogs yield an awful lot of great restaurant tips. I doubt I would have gotten to Pattaya Café without seeing an enthusiastic endorsement of it on Heckasac ( I’m seldom driving around the upper reaches of Watt Avenue, and even if I had been, I might not have noticed tiny Pattaya. It’s easy to drive by even if you have precise directions (from Mapquest, of course).

I would have been sorry to miss it. Pattaya is a definite winner, with carefully prepared, vibrant Thai food and a friendly vibe that more than makes up for any hunting to find the place. The atmosphere is classic hole-in-the-wall, with décor that’s mainly Thai-themed tchotchkes, centered on the host station (I liked the ones of folded paper), and a TV nobody was watching. It was tuned to Wheel of Fortune when a friend and I arrived on a Friday evening. The only other people in the restaurant were the waiter and the cooks, the latter sitting and eating on a break. A steady trickle of other diners appeared as we ate, most getting takeout.

The menu branches out intriguingly from the Thai fare you see everywhere, though the basics were all there, of course. Both my friend and I were hungry and eager to dive in, so it was tough to decide between things like the various spicy salads; the soups; the curries in their various colors; and all kinds of meat and seafood dishes, from stuffed chicken wings to Pattaya eggplant with pork and sweet basil to deep-fried fish topped with ground pork, onions and mushrooms. With just two of us to try the dishes, however, we had to make some hard choices. My attention was particularly drawn to pad ke mou, wide rice noodles with a choice of meat, mint and a spicy sauce, and my friend wanted to try gang ped yang, barbecue duck in a red coconut curry.

Our server was a font of helpfulness when it came time to order. We ordered both of our chosen dishes as well as som tum (green papaya salad), but we were stumped on an appetizer. They all looked equally yummy, so we asked the server what he would recommend. He unhesitatingly suggested the shrimp wrapped in rice paper and deep-fried (goong gra bork), and we went with it. He also helped decide the level of spiciness: He said medium was about as hot as he himself could handle. I’d heard that Pattaya’s kitchen doesn’t mess around: When you ask for spicy, you get spicy, so we took his advice and ordered both the som tum and the duck curry medium.

The only real glitch in the meal, in fact, came with a discrepancy in these spiciness levels. The curry was mild, with scarcely any zing at all. The papaya salad was sweat-inducingly, searingly hot. It was good, though, very strong and darkly colored with its fish-sauce dressing, but well-balanced. A little went a long way.

The salad couldn’t have been more different from the refined, restrained shrimp appetizers, which were elegantly wrapped and perfectly fried, arriving fresh and hot. Crisp outside and sweetly meaty within, they were beautifully complemented by the understated but also sweet, tangy honey dipping sauce that went with them.

The pad ke mou was, similarly, a star. Its chewy-tender, satiny noodles were a perfect base for a mildly piquant sauce, colorful peppers, barely wilted mint leaves and succulent ground chicken. The dish was perfectly fresh, balanced in textures and flavors, and utterly delicious; I would be happy to eat it for lunch every day.

The duck curry was just a bit disappointing, if only by contrast. It had a few too many bamboo shoots and not quite enough of the duck pieces. A little more heat would have elevated the dish as well. Even though it was mild, the flavors were in balance, with the sweetness of the coconut well-tempered by the complex aromatics of red curry. Next time, we’ll ask for it a little hotter and see if it comes back incendiary instead.

I’m delighted to have found Pattaya Café, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, and I’m already contemplating a return trip. But first, I may have to check out some of its neighbors, including a Russian restaurant just a few blocks away. Driving around this part of North Highlands revealed it to be a hotbed of intriguing eateries, proving that, in the end, there’s no substitute for firsthand experience—especially if that experience includes sampling the cooking at Pattaya Café.