The fun and easy part is that Yelpers' opinions range all over the map. For every worst, there's a best. With restaurants, for every angry "not authentic" there's heart-felt gratitude that this place "makes it just like Mom made it."
So you have to worry when the yelping is consistently censorious, as it has been for Thai Basil in East Palo Alto's popular Ravenswood Shopping Center.
How could a restaurant this bad still be in business?
Maybe I visited Thai Basil on the only good night it ever had. The food was fine, the service pleasant and the prices reasonable. If you need sustenance before braving a big-box store (IKEA, Nordstrom Rack, Home Depot, Sports Authority, Best Buy, Office Max) you could do a lot worse than Thai Basil. Except for Mi Pueblo's taqueria and a sports bar, the other choices are fast-food giants.
Early on a Monday evening, we sat alone. People came in for takeout orders, but we were lonely sailors in a sea of white-clothed tables. It looked like the Yelpers had a point.
We started with Tom Kha soup with ($5.95), just right for two people, redolent with kaffir lime leaf and galangal, a light touch of coconut milk, straw and button mushrooms. Pieces of chicken were tough, likely having been frozen recently in their lives. Best ever? No way. Good enough? Yes, and the soup can be ordered vegetarian or with seafood.
Likewise, the vegetarian green papaya salad ($7.95), even without adding prawns ($2), is very good over a warm mound of sticky rice. Shredded napa cabbage supplements the cabbage-like green papaya, carrots, tomatoes and green beans. Lose the romaine lettuce. You do have to pay $1.50 for a good-sized mound of jasmine rice, and $2 for brown, but it is a lot better than the dried-out lukewarm grains many Thai restaurants serve in tin bowls.
The best, and most cost-efficient, dish we tried was yellow curry ($9.95). In the beef version, tender slivers of meat absorb a complex broth of herbs and spices, aromatic with lemongrass and galangal, creamy but not sweet with coconut milk. Chunks of potatoes and thin-sliced onions fill it out. All the curries can be made vegetarian.
Thai Basil Spicy Pan Fried ($15.95) was tasty, but not what was advertised. If there were scallops, calamari and mussels, we missed them. There were seven plump prawns, and lots of green beans, nicely draped in wilted basil leaves.
Thai Basil in East Palo Alto (the Web site says Palo Alto, but never mind) is the sister of the southern-style Thai Basil, owned by Jua and Taneerat Rattanaphun in Sunnyvale since 1995. Each restaurant offers a small but adaptable menu.
In the elbow of the Ravenswood center, Thai Basil is neither the best in the area nor the most authentic, but for a quick lunch or to shore up for shopping, a practical choice. Anyway, that's how I'd yelp it.
1765 E. Bayshore Road, Suite C, East Palo Alto
Hours: Lunch 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri. Dinner 5-9 p.m. Mon.-Fri., noon-8 p.m. Sat. Closed Sunday.