The way of all Thai
Thai Phu-Ket Restaurant6301 Fair Oaks Blvd.
Carmichael, CA 95608
Here’s the thing about Thai restaurants in the Sacramento area: There are a lot of them. Like, really a lot of them. So I have no idea which ones I should visit unless I hear a tip. A reader wrote in and suggested that I check out the new Thai Phu-Ket, which I otherwise would never have noticed. I have a feeling not that many other people are noticing it, either, to judge by the need for the giant “Grand Opening” banner—still barely visible from the street. It’s at the back of a strip mall on an indeterminate stretch of Fair Oaks Boulevard, just south of Marconi—for downtown dwellers, it’s in the most inconveniently unreachable part of the widening V formed by Highway 50 and Business 80. But, anyway, there it is, serving up Thai food, and one evening when I was hungry and coming home from Tahoe, I remembered the tip and stopped by.
The restaurant is huge inside, and surprisingly elegant—heartbreakingly so, in fact, given how little street traffic the place seems likely to draw. The night we went, admittedly very early, we saw no other customers. The walls are done in a bright, yet not overwhelming color scheme of grape, rich lemon yellow, and teal, which sounds hideously ’80s, but was actually quite pleasant. The foyer is decorated with wooden carvings of Thai ladies and elephants (fascinating to a 2-year-old, I can vouch), the menu has a prettily patterned cover, the art on the walls is attractive, and our server—who I think was also the owner—was gracious, welcoming and serious.
This elegance, I must say, seems to be supported by slightly high prices for the food (sticky rice, for instance, is $2 per person, and the per-person amount is not large). The menu encompasses lots of the usual things you see at most Thai restaurants, and a few extras: appetizers like fish cake and various egg rolls, a full lineup of salads, grilled meats, noodle dishes, and curries. One strength is a high proportion of tasty-sounding seafood dishes on the short-ish menu. Drinks include Thai iced tea and coffee, a few bottled beers, and sodas.
We started off with the compact silver noodle salad—clear noodles tossed with ground chicken and shrimp (well, two shrimp, which seemed a little bit paltry), tangy lime dressing, and cucumber, tomatoes and herbs. The bright flavors of the herbs, including some extra-pungent mint, added a nice spark, as did some delicious, truly paper-thin slices of lemon grass. I liked the sourness of the lime dressing, which had a balanced depth, but it wasn’t spicy, as the menu had promised. The portion was disappointingly small for a $9 dish, but it was very pleasant to eat, anyway.
From the noodle section, we tried some pad see ew, a dish I generally enjoy, and one we ordered with the thought that it would tempt the 2-year-old we had in tow. It did; she liked the big, soft noodles and the mild sauce. I agreed on the kitchen’s light touch with the salty-sweet sauce, but the noodles used were only medium-wide and a little characterless (I like the really thick, pillowy ones better), and it seemed like the stir-frying of the whole mix was timidly done: The noodles didn’t have that degree of sear, and the extra, toasty flavor that comes with it, that you often see. The eggs and broccoli in the pad see ew were well cooked; the pork was just a touch dry.
Also a little dry were some grilled shrimp in the “volcano prawns” dish; these were marinated, skewered and grilled, with the skewers then stuck into an orange half (so they poked up like a volcano erupting, I assume) and topped with a mild peanut sauce. The menu promised that they’d be served with fresh vegetables, but the orange half was just surrounded with some lettuce. The peanut and shrimp combo was a good one, but the dish, despite its verticality, was a little less dramatic than the name seemed to promise.
A yellow curry with tender chicken, studded with chunks of floury potatoes, rounded out our meal. It seemed mild up front, but had just a little sting to it, and I liked it with the pearlescent sticky rice—though to me it seemed less delicate and aromatic than Thai curries usually are. I felt it tasted more like a good mass-market curry powder, and I couldn’t quite get the distinctive note of coconut milk.
So, amid the many, many Thai restaurants of the area, does Thai Phu-Ket stand out? I’m not quite sure. With so many options, I’d have to keep eating for years to do a thorough comparison. I wouldn’t consider it a dining destination—but if you’re in the neighborhood (by chance or habitually), it can yield up tasty standards and a pleasant ambience. Perhaps all Thai restaurants these days are fated to be neighborhood spots.