The Thai standard
Sacramento, CA 95816
It’s been nearly 10 years since this paper first reviewed Thai Basil, lavishing it with astounding praise, and in the years since, SN&R readers have consistently voted it to be among the city’s top Thai restaurants for this paper’s annual Best of Sacramento issue.
Indeed, the region’s three Thai Basil locations, a miniature matriarchal restaurant empire founded by Prayoon Sununsangthong, have set the standard for authentic Thai home cooking.
Still, there’s little question that after being open for more than a decade, any restaurant could begin to decline in quality. Could Thai Basil be any different? I decided to visit its Midtown location to find out.
The restaurant’s tom yum soup may be one of the best foods served in the City of Trees. It features an incredibly savory broth with layers of flavor that go deeper than a Thomas Pynchon novel and should be studied by grad students. The tom kha gai—a coconut-broth soup—is a veritable panacea against Delta winds and the morose rains that follow them.
Salads make up a large part of Thai cuisine and should not be overlooked. Larb gai consists of simple shredded chicken over mixed greens, cucumber and tomatoes. Fresh mint and a chili-laden dressing heavy with fish sauce and vigorous squeezes of lime juice pull it all together for an addictive and satisfying lunch.
A crispy catfish salad called yum pla grob sounds appealing but is drab, despite being served with cilantro, mint and pineapple. If you haven’t had crispy, minced catfish, then I guess after ordering it, you can check that off your list.
Pad Thai, on the other hand, is like meatloaf: Every single family has a recipe, and their recipe is the right one. That being the case, it’s hard to ever make an impersonal opinion. You like how a place does it, or you don’t. I can assure that pad Thai purists will be satiated here—it’s sweet, peanutty and filled with flavor. The thin noodles can get a bit gummy, but some prefer them over the fat, wide noodles. Que sera.
Of course, one of the true highlights of Thai Basil is its homemade curry pastes. These carefully balanced constructions of basil, lemongrass, shallots, chilis, kaffir lime leaves and numerous other ingredients come together to form truly authentic pastes that, when roasted, have been known to drive hungry Sacramentans into a berserk craze. (Very tragic. People have died from this, or so I hear.)
On that note, the green and red curries should not be missed. Both are achingly sweet and savory on numerous levels: Herbal, grassy, toasty and tossed with chicken or shrimp and served over jasmine rice, there can be no better way to enjoy lunch on a chilly December day.
A seasonal special, the massaman here is astounding. Massaman is a coconut-based curry with ground peanuts, red curry paste, and a number of additional spices, such as cardamom and nutmeg. The result is a sweet and decadent sauce perfect for braising short ribs until they simply faint off the bone from sheer joy. Served with potatoes, carrots, peanuts and wafer-thin crisps of yam, diners may never want to go back to the standard red, green or yellow curry again.
The spicy eggplant needed salt and significant amounts of more spice. True, one can alter spice with the varying types of pepper at the table (sauced, pickled, dried, etc.), but spicy eggplant needs to have more than a barely perceptible tingle.
The Thai ice tea tasted achingly sweet. Sweeter than any I have ever had. Then again, it’s Thai ice tea. What the hell does anyone expect except sugar and caffeine in quantities high enough to kill a racehorse?
Service here is impeccable. Present without being overbearing, helpful with recommendations, and able to accurately describe the seasonal specials.
All and all, Thai Basil has earned its reputation and will likely continue to keep it for years to come.