Thai, American-style

Thai Lao Cuisine

The pad see ew at Thai Lao Cuisine is sweet with tender noodles that contrast the perfectly cooked pork.

The pad see ew at Thai Lao Cuisine is sweet with tender noodles that contrast the perfectly cooked pork.

photo by stephanie stiavetti

Good for: The sweeter end of the Thai/Lao spectrum
Notable dishes: Pineapple fried rice, massaman curry
Thai/Laotian, Fair Oaks

Thai Lao Cuisine

5484 Dewey Dr.
Fair Oaks, CA 95628

(916) 844-7775

Ethnic restaurants pose a challenge for restaurant critics, because there are two different scales by which to judge them: their authenticity and their contextual likability, which are sometimes at odds in a place like Sacramento. Should ethnic restaurants stay true to their traditional culinary culture, even though it may alienate everyday diners unfamiliar with the flavors of their region? Or do they eschew their traditional flavor profile for a more Americanized experience? This challenge reappears whenever I review an ethnic restaurant.

As a world traveler, I want cooking that stays true to a cuisine’s roots, while many others prefer less “foreign-tasting” dishes. Either way, diners deserve an accurate review to decide if a restaurant is worth eating at. Chefs and restaurateurs deserve a review that meets them without bias. Critics ultimately deserve nothing, because it’s easy to sit back and smugly criticize someone else’s work from the sidelines, where they’ve got no skin in the game. There’s only one thing a critic needs: perspective.

As such, when a new Thai/Lao place opened in Fair Oaks, locals were excited. Thai Lao Cuisine beckons diners from Antelope to Rancho Cordova, but I was not terribly impressed by the food. Still, rankled by the need for fairness, I started talking to the people I was writing for. While waiting for a prescription, I asked the pharmacist what she thought. She said she loves the place and takes her family there twice a week. A kind woman waiting at Jiffy Lube also greatly enjoys the food there. No one I spoke to didn’t like Thai Lao Cuisine.

So, I returned to the restaurant with a new perspective. I sat down in the large open dining room, staffed with smiling servers and outfitted with colorful, yet tasteful decor and tried to see it through everyone else’s eyes. Even though the food isn’t close to traditional Thai or Laotian cuisine, I enjoyed it for what it was: ethnic food made for Americans.

The spring rolls ($8.99) were crisp and fresh, filled with iceberg lettuce and served with a very sweet peanut sauce. My pad see ew ($9.99) was also quite sweet, but the noodles had a lovely tenderness to contrast the perfectly cooked pork. The pineapple fried rice with chicken was surprisingly expensive at $13.99, but also sweet, tart and satisfying. One questionable dish, the sweet and sour chicken ($8.99), failed to impress, despite my new outlook, with its one-note, canned-broth flavor.

Other visits were equally enjoyable, revealing a massaman curry ($9.99) that had some real heat to it, as well as a rich peanut-y foundation to its sweetness. I ordered a heaping plate of pad Thai ($8.99) because every other person in the restaurant had. It was sweet, tart and comforting, hitting all the notes an American diner would hope to find in that dish.

My first thought is that I wanted more. More tart, more fish sauce funk, more counterbalance to all that sweet; but I’m in the minority. Every diner sitting down to eat was 100 percent enjoying his or her meal, and that’s the impression I’d like to leave you with: 20 or so smiling Fair Oaks residents, loving their dinners, being doted on by an incredibly friendly wait staff. What more could I wish for you?