Thai people love cooking. My mom would spend all day in the kitchen making enough food to last the entire week. For my first 18 years, I ate mostly Thai food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I remember feeling the spice roar through my nerves, creating this intense fire inside my body. The sweet coconut curry calmed my senses with that mix of ginger, chili, and lemongrass – flavors that give Thai food its signature taste.
I kicked Thai food when I moved to the University of Florida – the Thai places around campus were terrible and the food didn’t even come close to my mom’s home-cooked meals. Plus, Pad Thai seemed less desirable as my attention turned to pizza and ice cream. I did try cooking it at home once, from one of the boxes sold at the grocery store, but the dish tasted like stale cereal.
After a decade-long hiatus, I was looking to rekindle my Thai cravings. But how would I find a restaurant in San Francisco that could live up to the food I ate as a kid?
There are hundreds of Thai restaurants to choose from in the city. If you start out on Van Ness and head to the Presidio, there’s a Thai restaurant on every block. I was told when the Thai phenomenon hit the city, it took off like wildfire. Chinese restaurants were immediately out, and Thai restaurants were in.
If a Thai place caters to Western clientele, the chance of seeing fried bugs on the menu decreases significantly. And although I wouldn’t stick a frog in my mouth, I do think a good measure of true Thai-style cooking means serving an entire fish – the bones intact, the head still attached, and its eyes wide-open. I remember avoiding eating the eyeballs from a fish served for breakfast in my mom’s kitchen.
Lemongrass Thai on Polk Street is my local joint, so I began my search there. I walked inside and asked one of the waitresses for recommendations on where Thai people actually eat Thai food. Her eyes lit up and she said: “You’ve got to go to Lers Ros – they cook food Thai-style there.” Just being in a Thai restaurant stirred up my appetite. I ordered mango sticky rice to hold me over until I found Lers Ros.
On a Friday night, a friend and I ventured into the heart of the Tenderloin to find this so-called authentic Thai restaurant, Lers Ros. It’s helpful to know the address for this modestly sized restaurant (730 Larkin Street), or else you might walk right past it.
After sitting down at a table near the back, I noticed the owner carrying in two bags of groceries in each hand. He opened the door to his restaurant and rushed back into the kitchen. It was only 6 p.m. The night was still young – owner and executive chef, Tom Silagorn, would be serving until midnight, and tonight he was preparing for a full house. Plus, he had promised to give me a cooking demo in his kitchen.
He stopped by our table to introduce himself and make an important recommendation. “Most customers order the Thai herb sausage. We blend pork and curry together and add lemongrass to make it taste perfect. Then we barbeque it and serve it with red onions, sliced lemon, ginger, and Thai chili,” he said. It sounded good, but it wasn’t what I was craving.
Our waitress came over and we ordered the Pla Kra Pong Nuang Manow: steamed fresh sea bass with chopped chili and fresh lime juice. We also chose Som Tom Koong Yang, a shredded green papaya salad with chili, tomatoes, lime-based salad dressing and grilled prawns. She insisted we try it. She also suggested the salad with raw crab, but I didn’t want to go there. I also ordered red curry with vegetables and tofu because it was medium spicy.
I could have chosen the Pad Ped Alligator, a dish of stir-fried alligator and house-made chili paste with young pepper corn, or the Pad Ped Pla Lai, the eel with a spicy chili paste. Or I could have tried to stomach the special – frog fried with garlic and served with hot sauce. I imagined the frog looking like part of a science experiment and I certainly couldn’t picture putting it in my mouth.
When the food arrived, I dug into the papaya salad. The chili pepper burned the sides of my mouth until it felt completely numb. Déjà vu. I remembered eating this salad when I was growing up. It tasted familiar, not exotic. The taste is unlike any American salad I’ve had, with sharp flavors that lingered. Not even a whole pack of gum could mask my garlic breath.
The waitress served the curry dish next. The coconut milk and sugar made it taste as sweet as a cupcake.This particular curry had fish sauce, lemon leaf, and ginger with medium spice, and that familiar fire of my childhood that heated me through and through.
Thai food is about the flavor of a few simple ingredients that include chili, lemongrass, garlic, basil leaves, hot sauce, and fish sauce. The secret is in how you combine the flavors for each dish. I had flashbacks to my mom whipping up an egg omelet Thai-style with fish cakes. She’d add in tons of fish sauce, shake in the chili, and stick a spoon in the pot so she could tell when the flavors were spot on.
Tom interrupted the meal to take me back into the kitchen to teach me how to prepare the green papaya salad. The kitchen was roomy, and all the fresh ingredients were within easy reach. The peanuts, chili, and papaya bits were all organized in containers. I felt like I had just stepped onto the set of Top Chef .
When I commented on how I had noticed that everyone in the kitchen looked a little like Tom, he told me he employs his sister and seven cousins to help. He learned to cook from his mom, who was a housewife in Thailand. His dad worked, he explained, so his mom would spend her days cooking for her husband and the family. “I always liked to stay with my mom, that’s why I learned how to cook,” he said.
Tom worked quickly, first putting four pieces of purplish-looking shrimp on the grill, letting it fully cook to its traditional pink color. The rest of the ingredients – chopped up papaya, tomatoes, chili, lemon, peanuts – all went into the hand grinder. The shrimp was added, and the salad was mixed until all the ingredients became indistinguishable. The contents were poured onto a dish with a big hunk of cabbage next to it. It took only five minutes to make the salad.
According to Tom to be considered “real” Thai food, a dish must pass two tests: (1) the ingredients need to be products of Thailand, and (2) it must achieve a balance of taste.
When I returned to my table, the waitress brought out the flaming hot sea bass with the head fully attached. It’s impossible for the fish to get cold with a mini fireplace underneath the plate. I superficially stroked my fork on the surface of the fish and then scraped at the spicy sauce on top. Finally, I stuck my fork in the fattest part of the fish as if I were spearing a fresh fish right out of blue waters along the beach resort town of Phuket, Thailand.
We overheard a pair of Western girls say, “Ohmygod, I can’t believe they are eating that fish with its head still on! Yuck!”
All it takes is a brave stomach to try exotic dishes like frogs, but you can always try something more traditional like the spicy papaya salad or sweet curry. Lers Ros offers both traditional and exotic, so it’s a good place to experience authentic Thai food. You can watch the video above to see how Tom whipped up the salad, and then try it yourself. And, if you are patient, you can wait for the second Lers Ros to open this spring in Hayes Valley.
Grilled shrimp, raw shredded papaya, fresh chili, dried chili, garlic, green beans, tomato, fish sauce, palm sugar, and lemon juice. Tom wouldn’t give me the exact proportions. To taste it his way, you’ll just have to dine at Lers Ros.