Phaya Thai: Turn up the heat

Phaya Thai

4310 Marconi Ave.
Sacramento, CA 95821

Humor transcends language barriers. To wit: When a suit coat, the pockets of which contain a Crackberry and other costly-to-replace accouterments, is left at Phaya Thai, it’s quite the hoot for the answerer of the restaurant’s phone to say, with a somewhat pregnant pause, “Oh, yes, your coat is still here.” English is understood at this eatery, of course—but Thai is the staff’s language of preference.

And, upon arrival, there is the coat in all its synthetic finery, draped over the very same chair it was left on the previous evening. Channeling her inner Vanna White, the server gestures expansively toward the coat. There are smiles all around among the staff, but then one of the women turns and with arched brow delivers the punch line: “Just leave it one more time, and you’ll have to come back for dinner.”

Such extortion is unnecessary. Portions are large here. Phaya Thai, the restaurant’s full name, is a district in central Bangkok—a region quite possibly known for the prodigiousness of its eateries’ portions.

At Sacramento’s Phaya Thai, the burgundy interior with light wood wainscoting is brightened with bowls of fruit, plastic flowers and embroidered gold elephant wall hangings. Restrained but welcoming. The service is relatively speedy, although timing a to-go order appears to require skill unless one wants to spend a fair amount of quality time cooling jets by the restaurant’s teak spirit house and cash register.

For diners, the servers are exhaustive in their efforts. And even if the offerings aren’t as nuanced as some other local Thai places, it’s clear someone with a strong connection to the home country—maybe a former resident of Phaya Thai—is in the kitchen. The tom kha gai coconut soup is a bit sugary, but perhaps a bit more lemongrass would slice into the sweetness. Nonetheless, quite the value at $4.95.

Thai places seem to define heat differently. At some, requesting “medium hot” still leaves lips tingling for many minutes afterward, while “hot” causes eyes to bleed and steam to gush from ears. At such establishments, “Thai hot” converts the average Westerner into a puddle of charred goo. Phaya is more circumspect in its application of heat. Medium is barely so, and hot is closer to medium. For many customers, friendly Fahrenheit Thai food would be very bitchin’ indeed. But here—where, within reason, the closer the centigrade rivals the surface of the sun the more enjoyable the repast—Phaya’s tamped down fire earns a mild criticism.

Also on the mild criticism list is the Three Buddies entree with deep-fried beef, chicken and pork over mixed vegetables. Thai fried—as with Thai sweet and sour—is far less heavy than entrees of the same name that are offered by the region’s northern neighbor, China. While lighter, it seems there are numerous ways to more grandly showcase beef, chicken and pork. More pleasantly provocative is the avocado curry. The expectation is a verdant sauce of pureed avocados hiding any number of deliciosities within. Instead, what arrives is more of a panang curry featuring myriad slices of avocado. Pork or chicken might have been the better choice than beef. The avocado curry routinely appears as one of Phaya’s daily specials of which the duck and salmon options are of particular note. The beef salad is enough for two and does have some heated heft, although the height of the mountain on the plate comprises more iceberg than beef, tomatoes, scallions and carrot starbursts. Another salad worth consideration is one featuring a sweet, chewy sausage with plenty of cucumbers, red onion and mint. Refreshing, particularly on a hot Sacramento day.

Finally, another nifty turn, as with the decorative bowls of fruit and vases of orchids, is found in the delicate corallike carrot flowers gracing each plate. Friendly, unpretentious and economical, Phaya might be a bit off the main track but worthy of a visit or two. Or three.