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February 13, 2004

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Publication Date: Friday, February 13, 2004

On Thai row On Thai row (February 13, 2004)

King of Krung Siam opens on Castro Street

By Grace Rauh

With several Thai restaurants jockeying for diners in downtown Mountain View, it can be difficult to know where to go.

And now that King of Krung Siam has opened on the same block as Amarin Thai Cuisine, the local competition just got a little more heated.

The bright restaurant still bearing a "Grand Opening" sign on its fašade is a newcomer to Mountain View, but not to the Peninsula. Thai food lovers have long flocked to the popular Krung Siam on University Avenue in Palo Alto -- also run by King of Krung Siam owner Cathy Masuda. Those loyal to Krung Siam are surely pleased that the Castro Street addition is bursting on the scene with classic Thai favorites that are tasty, dependable and fast.

The extensive menu covers all the Thai food basics and then some. Overall, the food is satisfying, if not as authentically spicy and flavorful as I usually prefer, but I am a bit spoiled. I lived the northern city of Chiang Mai, Thailand for 10 months and spent my free time at noodle stands, in restaurants, and in bustling markets -- sampling everything from exotic Thai fruits to crunchy fried silk worms. My love affair with Thai food is still going strong.

Diners like myself, who love a fiery curry and crave the mouth-burning sensations that accompany nearly every meal eaten in Thailand, had better impress upon the wait staff that they do like spicy food -- really.

Each dish can theoretically be ordered with varying degrees of spiciness but even Masuda admits that most Western diners have difficulty eating food "exactly like a Thai."

"Really strong, really spicy, really hot, they can not eat it," she said. Masuda added that she focuses on using fresh ingredients and lean meats in all her dishes.

Upon first scanning the appetizer list, I did a double take. The spring rolls are named after women -- sort of. There are the sow kob por, or young lady spring rolls; the mae my, single mom spring rolls; the sow talay, ocean girls spring rolls and the jai nang, heart girls rolls.

My boyfriend and I settled on the heart girls ($7.95). Five crispy rolls arrived sliced in half and steaming hot, filled with whole plump shrimp, ground pork, silver glass noodles and chopped vegetables. A spicy sweet and sour sauce packed a subtle punch, and although the generous dish could easily serve a larger group, my date and I happily polished off most of the rolls.

The tom kha gai ($8.95), a coconut milk-based chicken soup made with lemon grass, lemon leaves, galangal (Thai ginger), lime juice, chili paste, dried chili, cilantro, baby corn and mushrooms, was more sweet that spicy. Perhaps the broth needed to cook longer to better absorb the galangal, lemon grass and chili.

Our waitress must have alerted the kitchen that we were serious about trying some spicy food because just as she whisked the tom kha gai away, our moo makeau ($8.95), a pork and eggplant stir-fry, arrived and left me digging for tissues in my bag.

The thin slices of pork, eggplant, green bell peppers, onions, carrots and basil dripped with a "special" spicy sauce made from 10 different ingredients, including basil, soy sauce, oyster sauce and fish sauce. The eggplant, having absorbed the dark sauce, was soft, flavorful and cooked to perfection. A silver bowl filled with steamed rice ($1 per person) accompanied the stir-fry.

A sip of my sweet and milky Thai ice tea ($2) was all it took to cool the fire burning down my esophagus.

The phed prik khing ($9.95), or chili ginger duck, was tender and meaty with a thin layer of fat and skin. The rich meat came with green beans and sliced red bell peppers in a chili ginger sauce. The sauce was rich, heavy and a bit oily, and the duck tasted more Indian than Thai, but the flavors contrasted well with our spicy stir-fry.

Earlier in the evening, I spied sweet rice and mango ($3) on the dessert menu and was eager to order it. The dish is a personal favorite of mine and found throughout Thailand during the dry season when mangoes are ripe and plentiful. Restaurants and markets serve the bright, freshly sliced fruit atop mounds of cold, white sticky rice, rich from having been cooked with coconut milk. Sweet coconut cream is drizzled on top, and the dish is divine when the mango is sweet and ripe.

I was sad to find our mango overripe and mushy. And instead of coconut cream, a dollop of coconut ice cream melted over a chunk of steaming hot rice.

I returned for lunch with two friends who still reminisce about the food they sampled during a trip to Thailand a few years ago. Like my boyfriend and I, they too love to slurp spicy soups and munch on fried noodles and were excited to try King of Krung.

The restaurant's two large dining rooms were jammed and noisy at lunch, a stark contrast from the relaxed vibe at dinner. We were quickly ushered to a table by a smiling waiter and within a minute, a waitress had filled our water glasses and placed three small bowls of bland tofu soup with vegetables before us. Without a word, the staff had assumed that we would be ordering the lunch specials instead of choosing from elsewhere on the menu. It was the only time I saw the impeccable service falter at all during either visit. And when I explained that we wanted to order off the regular menu at lunch, we were told it would not be a problem.

Our waitress recommended the pla louy saun ($12.95), or garden fish. The deep fried trout was topped with a fresh tangy sauce and sat on a bed of iceberg lettuce. In Thailand, fried fish arrives whole -- head and all -- but this trout was headless. Just under its crispy golden exterior lay soft white meat. The fish was covered with fresh garlic, red and green onions, cabbage and tiny slices of tiny green and red Thai chilies. The raw vegetables made it a light dish, perfect for a summer evening.

From the lunch menu, we chose green chicken curry ($7.95) and pad khee mao moo ($7.95), fried wide noodles with pork, carrots, basil, red bell peppers, lettuce, basil and broccoli. Pad khee mao is traditionally Thailand's most spicy fried noodle dish, but our dish lacked the requisite punch. The warm noodles were soft and mildly spicy, but not as flavorful as I've tried elsewhere in Thailand and in America.

The green curry was brimming with chicken, red and green bell pepper slices, cucumber, eggplant and basil. The broth was rich, creamy and nicely spiced, and I sipped it before spooning some on my steamed rice. For dessert, we tried the fried banana with coconut ice cream ($4.50) and concluded it was an excellent way to end our meal.

However, as we savored the final bites, an unpleasant odor cut through the dessert's sweet aroma. A waitress was wiping down vacant tables with glass cleaner -- a faux pas in any restaurant where diners are still present.

King of Krung Siam is a fun spot to head with a big group or even as a solo diner. The new restaurant knows what local diners are looking for, and they are meeting most expectations across the board. They still have a few kinks to work out -- like holding off on the Windex at lunch -- but the top-notch service and fresh food will win over many people looking for a good, affordable meal.

Dining Notes

King of Krung Siam,
194 Castro St., Mountain View
960-7077
Hours: Monday to Friday 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; Saturday 12 p.m.-3 p.m.; Sunday 12 p.m.-4 p.m.;
Monday to Sunday 5 p.m.-10 p.m.


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