Thai surprise

Bangkok @ 12th

900 12th St.
Sacramento, CA 95814

(916) 443-5588

Bangkok@12 appears merely to be Amarin Thai—opened in 1983, Sacramento’s first Thai restaurant—rising phoenixlike from its recent closure at 12th and I streets. But like accidentally hitting on a transvestite in a dimly lit bar, looks can be deceiving. (Blame it on Bangkok.)

Yes, the sweet-hearted, swift-of-foot servers of Amarin remain, zipping around a freshly painted dining room. But, more importantly, there’s a new owner and a new chef and, accordingly, alterations to the cooking style and the War and Peace-length menu. To the good, in the main.

Among some of new additions are Boat Noodle Soup and Bangkok Street Noodles. Several new dishes are reminiscent of Lemon Grass Restaurant. That’s the immediate flash from the not-quite-as-garlicky-as-advertised barbecue steak—a slew of slivers of what seems to be skirt atop a colorful mattress of carrot flowers, zucchini chunks, snow peas, onion slivers (not enough), torn cabbage, a bevy of bamboo shoots and (ugh) broccoli.

The unexpected star, though, is the green beans, whose snap is stunningly complementary with the steak. A benign lime dipping sauce the waiter warns is spicy—they’re so darn solicitous—is essential to scarfing the steak. As a perverse Dr. Frankenstein experiment, a vile broccoli spear is immersed in the healing lime sauce to see if, by some wild stretch, a modest level of palatability can be achieved. It’s alive with flavor! Not that it lifts broccoli from the vegetable cellar, but it’s an improvement.

The new chef giveth and taketh away. Vanished from the appetizer list is a perennial favorite, mee krob—Thai fried noodles in syrupy sweet and sour accented with sprouts and scallions. So is the katong thong and fried wontons. But the appetizer list has grown from seven to 11.

Among the newbies: curry puffs—deep-fried, quartered, quesadilla-looking thingies filled with mashed potatoes and onions that are way too big to fit in the teensy dish of clearish-red sweet and sour sauce jammed with cucumber triangles. This is problematic. Like the steak’s lime sauce, the sweet and sour is essential to enjoying the dryish puffs, but spooning it over leaves most of the sauce on the plate where it doesn’t do a lick of good. Closer alignment of the dipping bowls to the vast entree plates—almost two big for a table for two—and all will be well.

Less dependent on dipping sauce are the Thai dumplings, a siu mai-reminiscent appetizer that, while enhanced by a dark, more soy-influenced sweet and sour, holds its own nicely without it. One of the veteran Amarin servers says these dumplings, wrapped in banana leaves, were an “after-school comfort food” for her.

Worth special praise is the new soup that accompanies lunch specials. While Amarin’s was a clear broth with some veggies, Bangkok’s is more tom yum—hot and sour and jampacked with little carrots, mushrooms, tomato bits, tofu, cabbage and scads of thumbnail-size baby corn pieces. Quite the freebie.

Though much may be taken from the menu, much abides. Prices remain Amarinesque, and the lunch menu is largely unchanged. My pal Mary-Ann Warmerdam, the deliciously witty head of the state Department of Pesticide Regulation, sticks with what she has ordered for the eons she has frequented Amarin: “L10,” the sautéed eggplant, onions, bell peppers, scallions and basil infused with chili and garlic.

When it arrives, she buses the appetizer plates to the kitchen counter; there’s not enough room on the table for all the plates. She notes the extreme generosity of the portions; half a lunch is enough for one, given the Everest of white or brown rice that accompanies.

For the inveterate vegetarian, it will take many visits to check off each item on Bangkok’s menu. Forty-eight—count ’em, four dozen, all-veggie-all-the-time options. And, as an omnivore, it will be a pleasure working through the other 84 items offered.

Bangkok is beautiful, but come early or later, it’s just as bustling as Amarin, and likely to get bustlinger.