The food at the seemingly millions of Thai restaurants in my neighborhood tends to taste like little more than the Styrofoam boxes it comes in. I could avoid this by eating in, yet since most establishments are even shorter on good looks than they are on good cooking, why should I suffer twice?
One alternative to the mediocre food mediocre room has been a drive to Pasadena, to Saladang, an always lively, mildly industrial-looking restaurant that serves better-than-average (some say exceptional) Thai food, and that has developed such a devoted following that the wait on weekends can run over an hour. While patrons never seem to mind — there is much good will on line, and staff are happy to offer you a drink while you linger — they will nonetheless rejoice over the opening of Saladang‘s new restaurant, Saladang Song, directly next door.
Song makes an enormous impression even before you’re inside, as the epic entryway of soaring, intricately cut steel panels is at once exotic and highly modern (think: The King and I meets Richard Serra). With an immense outdoor patio and a dining room with mile-high ceilings, the effect is breathtaking.
”Looks as though it cost three, four million to build,“ says one of my dining companions, a contractor, who‘s suggested Song because he and his crew can lunch in under an hour. And in such a pretty setting! Orchids arch gracefully on every surface, small shrines are scattered unobtrusively, and check out that gleaming kitchen.
We are promptly attended by the comely Thai servers, one of whom suggests Thai tea with ”black pearl.“ The marble-size balls of black tapioca taste like malt and have the consistency of Gummi Bears, and make me laugh each time I slurp one up the fat straw. More grown-up is a bright-orange cha-ma-nao, a sweet-and-sour tea with lime essence, which tastes like a tart cocktail minus the booze.
We begin with an appetizer of miang rambutan, the white-fleshed, lycheelike rambutan split and filled with tofu and peanuts, and blanketed with toasted coconut. With its sweet, gingered dipping sauce, it reminds me of an Almond Joy. We also share yum eggplant, vividly lilac Japanese eggplants grilled until soft, soaked through with chile and lime, and scattered with a half-dozen very fresh shrimp. Shrimp chips (kao-grieb-goong) are puffy as packing peanuts and about as flavorful. Better are steamed rice-noodle rolls with dried shrimp (guay-tiao-rod), the slippery rice wrappers so delicate that they’re barely capable of containing a jumble of tiny dried shrimp, mushrooms and tofu.
An entree of basil beef is tender, fired up with a lot of green chiles, and, as part of an $8.95 lunch special, comes with steamed (or egg-fried) rice, a simple green salad and a handful of calamari fried into crisp, oily O‘s — with their sweet-and-sour dipping sauce, they remind me of boardwalk food, both disgusting and delicious. I reluctantly fork over a few tender fish balls in mild green curry (ka-nom-jeen-gang-kiew-wann), which comes with four swirls of rice vermicelli to add to the deep bowl of coconut-milk-rich broth. Fat pan-fried rice noodles with pork (pad see iew) are standard-issue, soft and sweet, crisp and sweeter where they’ve been blackened by the pan. The pork, however, is gray and tasteless.
A dessert of ginkgo nuts in syrup resembles garlic cloves and tastes like . . . not much. Infinitely more interesting are chunks of steamed potatoes (white and sweet), carrot and taro doused in hot coconut cream. The others content themselves with complimentary cups of black-raspberry ice cream and tiny parting gifts, single mints wrapped in silver cellophane, tied with ribbon. While we all appreciate the attention to detail, and the fact that we‘re done in 45 minutes, I find myself wishing the food were a bit better.
Wish granted, during a near-spectacular dinner on a Friday. While the line for Saladang snakes out the door (and not because it’s offering such different fare, as the menus are close, if not identical), there are tables at Song, especially on the patio, where there is a terrific amount of shadow play going on. My friend, an art director, spends five full minutes admiring the room.
”Clean, simple, good proportions,“ she says, before digging into a Saladang Song salad, matchsticks of green apple and onion tossed with ginger, peanuts, coconut and a limey galangal dressing.
Though they arrive too quickly, the entrees are outstanding. Crab and shrimp with coconut milk (poo-goong tom ga-ti) contains a copious amount of crab legs helpfully cracked, the broth packing a pow of ginger and chile. Barbecue chicken with sticky rice (e-saan combination) is a lovely presentation, the translucent rice nestled in a covered rattan basket, the chicken a mahogany pink that, at first glance, appears undercooked but is not — it‘s moist and flavorful, especially when spiked with the peppery sesame sauce.
I order the tubers in coconut cream again, and again eat them alone. I notice that a similar version, sans coconut cream, is offered at breakfast, in the thick rice soup called joak-mun. I imagine that Song must be especially tranquil in the morning, like a very accommodating hotel abroad.
383 S. Fair Oaks Ave., Pasadena; (626) 793-5200. Open Sun.–Thurs. 6:30 a.m.–9:45 p.m. and Fri.–Sat. 6:30 a.m.–10 p.m. Appetizers $5.95–$8.95, entrees $5.95–$15.95. Beer, wine and sake. AE, CB, DC, MC, V. Recommended dishes: Thai tea with black pearl; yum eggplant; Saladang Song salad; green curry with fish balls; e-saan combination; crab and shrimp in coconut milk; tubers in coconut cream.