Spice it up

For a shopping-center restaurant, Chantara Thai Cuisine is surprisingly elegant, with deeply colored, pumpkin-toned walls, and lovely wood paneling that matches the tables and the pretty jigsaw work near the bar. A colleague of my husband told me about this new spot in fast-growing El Dorado Hills. She’s not the only one who has discovered it. On a recent Thursday night, we arrived to find the place comfortably full with a guestbook of complimentary comments at the front.

At first, I was surprised to see so many diners. The place is something of a challenge to find, located in a corner of what seemed to be a large and growing shopping center just south of Highway 50. Getting to it feels a little like navigating a benign video game: turn left into the vast parking lot off Town Center Boulevard and head to the southeastern corner of the center. As we found out, if you pass the fountains or spot a large and slightly eerie building of uncertain purpose with the enormous word “REFRESHMENTS” visible on a sign inside, you’ve gone too far.

Thai food’s spectrum of flavors can range from the bold to the elegant, and the visual cues of the restaurant’s interior led me to expect the latter. The menu offers all of the standards that have become familiar as Thai restaurants have proliferated in recent decades—satay, various colors of curries, stir-fry combinations, and noodle dishes like pad thai—as well as some further choices like salmon in roasted curry or a fried Cornish game hen.

A pleasant surprise was a wine list that seemed unusually thoughtful for a neighborhood Thai place, where the wine offerings often seem perfunctory at best. Here, there were plenty of choices by the glass and two-line descriptions of each wine. My husband had a Washington Riesling that was aromatic and lightly sweet—just right with the spicy flavors of our appetizers.

We started with a squid salad and “angel wings”—chicken wings that were partly boned and stuffed with a peppery mixture of ground meat and translucent noodles, then sliced. The bony, crunchy wing tips were left attached. This gave the wings a peculiar look, but added something tasty to gnaw on. The skin was fried to a crisp and burnished, and the sweet honey-plum dipping sauce alongside paired well with the filling.

The pretty squid salad was even better, with milky-white and tender rings of squid among fresh mint leaves, shredded carrot, crisp lettuce, and slivered red onions. The sour and spicy dressing, with its lingering and building heat, gave the lie to my assumption about the food matching the dining room’s restrained air. Pungent, slender slivers of fresh ginger mixed in with the salad added to the dish’s punch.

After this gutsy opening, the main dishes were a tiny bit disappointing. I love the pillowy texture of broad rice noodles and ordered the raad-na, fresh rice noodles in a brown-bean sauce with broccoli and pork. (There’s a choice of various meats, seafood, or tofu for all of the noodle, stir-fry, and curry dishes.) The noodles were good (though thinner than I like), but they were swimming in a sweetish gravy that was too pale and bland for my taste. A minor oversight in the otherwise pleasant and solicitous service meant that the dish came without a serving utensil, and scooping up the dripping, tangled noodles was a challenge.

I enjoyed the green-curry chicken more, particularly the flavorful leaves of Thai basil that dotted the rich sauce and the fresh assortment of perfectly cooked vegetables. The chicken, however, was a bit dry and chewy— I think it would have been better if it were sliced a little thinner—but the eggplant, zucchini and green beans were done just right. The sweet, smooth, coconut-based sauce was not hot enough for my taste, but that was probably my own fault: The menu mentions to specify whether you prefer mild, medium or hot. Our server didn’t ask, and I forgot to give a preference. If you like a bit of spice, be aware that the default option seems to be very mild indeed. I couldn’t detect any spiciness whatsoever, and that also meant that some of the characteristic flavors of green curry were barely present.

Compared to the squid salad’s bold flavors, the curry was surprisingly timid, but I think that’s a problem that could be corrected with more attention from both diner and server. On the other hand, if you prefer the gentler side of Thai cooking, the curry would be perfect. In any case, Chantara Thai Cuisine offers a gracious experience and a tasty assortment of dishes. If you live nearby or find yourself in the area on your way up or down Highway 50, it might well be worth a stop. Just turn off before you pass the fountains.