Road to Ruen
Roseville, CA 95661
I don’t find myself in Roseville much, but recently I was returning from a jaunt to Auburn for a little last-chance hiking to a swimming hole. On the way back, traffic jammed, as it is wont to do in the Roseville corridor, and it seemed like the thing to do to pull off and get an early dinner. I’d heard good things about Ruen Thai, not far off the freeway on Eureka Road, so Thai food it was.
We were glad we stopped. The restaurant is in a typical upscale suburban shopping center—though it’s overshadowed by the still-under-construction restaurant Crush 29—but the owners have transformed the space. Those telltale acoustical ceiling tiles remain, but otherwise you’d never know you were in a shopping center: The walls are paneled in wood with an appealing rectangular pattern that frames a few objets d’art. Precisely folded, flowerlike napkins adorn every plate; a faux orchid arrangement, every table. And in the back is a lovely tropical fish tank that enchanted every kid in the place.
Also aiming to enchant every kid in the place—or at least make friends—was our server, who seemed also to be the owner of this family-run spot. Not only did he correctly guess our daughter’s exact age, but also he seemed enthusiastic about her presence even when we couldn’t stop her from dropping food on the floor. (We do try to clean up after her, but dining out with a young toddler is a situation that calls for large tips.) At times he seemed over-solicitous—did we like our food? Really? Was everything going well?—but it all clearly sprang from a desire to offer hospitality and entice back customers.
Consider us enticed. The friendly service and elegant setting was complemented by the food, which ranged from familiar Thai favorites to more distinctive offerings. All of it had a welcome freshness. Word is that Ruen Thai makes all its food freshly, even the coconut milk for the curries. The first hint of this vaunted freshness came in the young-coconut drink, a sweet but light concoction full of tiny shreds of young coconut, so tender as to be almost custardy. My husband, who loves a sweet nonalcoholic drink like nobody I’ve ever met, pronounced it the best one he’d had. I liked it, too, but also looked to the wine list, which was short but featured a few good choices, particularly light and aromatic whites that complemented the food.
We started off with a simple dish of fried shrimps—chosen, I confess, to appeal to our daughter, which they definitely did. They appealed to us, too, though, with their sweet meat and crunchy, crispy, golden exterior. The tangy-sweet sauce alongside was unchallenging but pleasant.
Tom kha gai soup, full of chicken and mushrooms, was another easy choice. It was tasty but a bit lacking in the promised “hot” and “sour” departments. Our server had asked how spicy we wanted it and clearly didn’t believe us when we said medium—indeed, he steered us to a more mild direction than we asked for at first. The soup was ultra-tame, despite a modest beading of red oil floating on top. It was nevertheless aromatic with coconut and lemongrass.
My favorite dish of the night—and one of my favorites I’ve ever had in a Thai restaurant—was yum pla krob, a salad of crisp yet light cubes of fried fish, matchstick shreds of green apple, lots of fresh mint and crunchy lettuce, and the further distinctive salty crunch of cashew nuts. It was all coated lightly with a balanced, slightly piquant, savory-sweet house sauce that made me want to lick the plate. Apple might seem odd in a Thai dish, but its tartness played a role much like green papaya in the more familiar dish som tum, and the salad was a perfect harbinger of impending fall on a warm night.
Stuffed with our various appetizers, we then moved on to a noodle dish: rad nar, thick and wide rice noodles with broccoli, very firm tofu and a brown bean sauce. There was a bit too much of the rather goopy sauce, but the noodles were tasty, and the broccoli was perfectly crisp-tender. Still, I preferred the green curry with chicken, which had a strong dose of aromatic lemon grass, a distinct freshness and a lovely complex flavor, in addition to some of the longed-for heat that had been missing in the soup. Rounds of eggplant and a few too many bamboo shoots rounded out the dish, which was just right over the perfectly cooked jasmine rice—and, since we were pretty full by then, great for lunch again the next day.
We left happy, with a cheerful exhortation to come back soon from our indefatigable server. Well-prepared and authentic Thai food is now fairly easy to find in the Sacramento area, but should you find yourself in Roseville, Ruen Thai is a worthwhile stop. I’d go back just for that fish-and-green-apple salad, even if the restaurant didn’t have other charms to recommend it.