Here’s firm warning to anyone seeking authentic Thai cuisine: You won’t find it at Bua Thai in the Village. I discovered this the moment our first appetizer, the Bua Thong, came out. The Bua Thong is a deep-fried won-ton filled with crab meat and cream cheese, with a sweet-and-sour dipping sauce on the side. I bit into one, trying in vain to taste the elusive crab meat the menu promised.
“I gotta say,” my dining partner said, “there’s nothing like deep-fried cream cheese to evoke the flavors of Thai cuisine.”
Then again, what can you expect from a glossy ethnic restaurant in the Village? Located near the Packing House, Bua Thai’s décor—with sophisticated lighting, muted colors, mahogany paneling, and tastefully placed works of art—suggests higher pricing than the actual total on your check. The only real sign of ethnic restaurant kitsch sat on our tables: fake silk lotus flowers, floating in bowls filled with water and glass marbles. On my latest trip, someone tied heart-shaped balloons onto every chair for Valentine’s Day. If you were to introduce your grandmother from Kansas to Thai cuisine, this would at least encourage her to step through the door.
On most days, the wait at Bua Thai is tolerable, even quick. The night I went, however, the double whammy of Valentine’s Day and Family Weekend hit the restaurant. Between the running waiters and the situation out front, it seemed the restaurant had no idea how to handle it. For a 6:30 p.m. “reservation” (more like “names being written down on a sheet of paper without confirming that a table will be open at that time”), we waited 50 minutes.
The pack of people with reservations got increasingly frustrated with the hostess as she kept promising that yes, a table would open soon. We noticed that the outdoor patio, usually full of diners, had only two tables set up that night. A family who had walked in without a reservation managed to secure a table quickly, to the outrage of those who had called in days before. The lesson is that reservations at Bua Thai are useless. If you come in on a crowded day, persevere or get out.
For a Thai restaurant, Bua Thai seems overly reluctant to use nam pla, the salty fish sauce fundamental to all Southeast Asian cuisine, in any significant dosage. As we sat down, flicking bits of dried rice off our bamboo placemats, I quickly ran through the dishes I’d had before at Bua Thai. In the pad thai, the spicyness is laced among the strands of noodles and eggs, outweighing the lime and fish sauce. The drunken fried rice is crispy, spicy, and salty, in that order. It’s satisfying when you’re sober and orgasmic when you’re drunk. The chicken satay was slightly dry and lacking the twang of tamarind and—you guessed it—fish sauce. Only the papaya salad, a tangy, shredded tangle of crisp white papaya studded with purple and orange garnishes, truly stood out—not just for its taste, but for finally highlighting the umami joys of fish sauce. But try telling someone that fish sauce not only exists but is actually in their food, and watch a look of revulsion appear on their face.
I’d had curries there in the past, too, and soups. The green curry is a mild initiation into the world of curry; the sweetness of sugar and coconut milk mitigates the slow-burning heat of chili and ginger, perfect with mounds of white rice and chicken. The red curry is full-on, unadulterated heat, and the scent of garlic and ginger makes you reach for your constantly-refilled water. Soups come in small and large sizes, the large easily serving four people. The Tom Yum, its broth laced with lemongrass and lime, easily satisfies.
But the honey duck, apparently one of the most ordered items on the menu, puzzled us. Somehow it tasted like Chef Boyardee ravioli. It could be the overt tanginess. It could be the chewy texture. But turning duck breast into canned ravioli is a true accomplishment. A sad, burned stir-fry of broccoli and carrot occupied half the plate, as if to apologize for the price of the dish. It, along with the random tomato slice, did little to enhance the Duck Boyardee.
We felt indifferent towards the barbecue pork spare ribs, although they were tender enough to slip off the bone. There was too little marinade and a faint caramel taste hinting at what could have been.
The real strength of the restaurant lies in its noodle dishes. Even on the worst of nights, the beautifully plated Pad Kee Mow succeeded. Once you adjust to the heat, the basil, soy, and fish sauce highlight the dish, and the broad noodles and meat (your choice of chicken, pork or seafood) have a satisfying, glutinous snap to them.
If you decide to indulge in a dessert at the restaurant rather than taking a trip to 21 Choices next door, be warned. Anything that is not a scoop of ice cream seems to take forever to prepare. Our fried bananas, melting in their tempura crust, were tasty, but took 25 minutes to get to our table.
Bua Thai clearly knows how to do Thai food decently, but for some reason chooses to cater to what they believe are American tastes. Thai cuisine is much more than pad thai and curry, and a restaurant can be much more than what Bua Thai is—a place for people to socialize on weekends while feeling vaguely ethnic. Is it necessary to sacrifice good food and ample fish sauce to get people in your seats? Perhaps so in Claremont.
As we signed the check, however, we saw a potential sign that the restaurant was still connected to its hole-in-the-wall roots: The pen that came with the check had an enormous silk rose Scotch-taped on its end. How ethnic-restaurant kitsch.