Thai less traveled
Bangkok Garden3230 Arena Blvd.
Sacramento, CA 95834
It’s odd exiting on Arena Boulevard and going away from the arena—pavilion, whatever—even though that appears to be the direction the current occupants are heading. But turning left or right, if coming from the north, leads to Bangkok Garden, a welcome change from the sanitized sameness of Sacramento strip malls sited in Natomas.
The Garden isn’t a place you would expect to discover in a just-west-of-Interstate-5 tilt-up anchored on a Bel Air supermarket with the inevitable Starbucks and Round Table Pizza. But that’s one of the endearing things: The restaurant’s dark wood, traditional Thai interior, with Buddha shrine over the archway leading into the kitchen, is a warm and welcome aberration. Another instant plus is the silver-haired, bespectacled patriarch in apron.
When not out front, the patriarch and his team are creating not just the expected panoply of Thai offerings—pad thai, drunken noodles, cashew, garlic, basil this-that-or-the-other—but entrees and appetizers off the predictable Thai path. Lobster meat fried rice? Yeah, it’s $12.95 but, still, well outside spirit house confines. Spicy mussels, deep-fried mussels, soft-shell crab. All there for the taking.
There are also several dishes featuring duck, a poultry that doesn’t seem to raise the head atop its elongated neck very often in Thai restaurants. Among the specialties are duck over spinach and duck curry, which features an orangish panang-like sauce. Duck doesn’t seem to mesh as well with Thai flavorings as chicken or pork. And although the menu claims the curry is spicy the mix of zucchini, green beans, pineapple, tomato, woodsy bamboo shoots and basil muzzle whatever heat is supposed to exist.
That’s not the case with what the waiter calls “fish sauce,” which along with a small bowl of cashews accompanies the Thai sausage appetizer. Again, Thai sausage? Management is a bit vague on the sausage ingredients—a seemingly universal response—but there are not-so-subtle hints of lemongrass, garlic and cilantro. Superlatives aren’t bandied about lightly here, but a chunk of one of the three grilled sausages immersed in the devilishly spiced sauce, coupled with a trio of roasted cashews, is pert near a perfect flavor combination.
A lot of questions are asked about the sauce’s contents in hopes of replicating same in the Lucas Family Test Kitchen. There’s vinegar, lime juice, Thai chilies—in abundance—ginger, garlic and cilantro, but management remains mum on proportionality.
As to the meal’s underpinnings, each entree comes with two mounds of rice, a generous touch. The complimentary cup of soup has a tom yum tilt, but its half a baby corncob, solitary mushroom, single cabbage leaf and a deliriously sweet carrot or two falls well short of the gold standard for free Thai soup set by Bangkok@12 with its vegetable-clogged hot-and-sour creation.
The patriarch owns a mandoline and aims to get his money’s worth out of it. Carrots in the soup and entrees are crinkle-cut—as are the astoundingly large zucchinis, no doubt an unbridled joy for squashaholics.
There are five stops along the heat spectrum—mild, medium, spicy, extra spicy and Thai spicy—and bumping up to extra on the see sa hai causes no permanent damage. There are pockets of volcanic virulence but, in the main, it’s a pleasurable upgrade to an already appetizing mix of shrimp, scallops, catfish, calamari and sordid vegetables. The menu says there are bell peppers, onions, shoots and basil, but there’s also broccoli—damn it—more of the zucchini on steroids and monstrous Vs of celery that look like the horns of a gazelle.
A testament to the caliber of both the food and the attentive—always accommodating—service is that on one visit there’s loud and persistent drilling in the wall from the neighboring space, which—alas and alack—is going to become a Jimboy’s Tacos. People ask what the rumbling is, particularly those sitting nearest the offending wall. But no one leaves. And no one complains. They just enjoy what they’re eating.