Richard Foss

Garden Thai offers authentic Thai heat in Redondo Beach

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The Garden Thai partner Jay Cheowalit with crying tiger. Photo by Brad Jacobson (CivicCouch.com)

by Richard Foss

A few years ago, I spent an afternoon in a Thai culinary garden learning about the sight, scent, and flavor of the herbs that make that cuisine so magnificent. I tasted the world’s spiciest basil, something that is so pungent that even Thais wear eye protection when cooking it, as well as fruity pandan leaves, chillies in various strengths and so many other plants, I can’t remember them. Each breeze that blew through freshened the air with a different scent. I envied the neighbors who got to enjoy all the fragrance with none of the yard work.

The breeze coming across Aviation Boulevard to The Garden Thai restaurant in North Redondo doesn’t have the same allure, but once you are inside the restaurant the same magic is at work. The small strip mall restaurant has little going on when it comes to ornamentation, but their cooking has the subtle use of powerful spices that is the hallmark of Thai cuisine.   

That cuisine is very regional, with Southern dishes having more influence from Muslim traders, the north more from China, and a more aristocratic and complex cuisine around Bangkok. Most restaurants in California serve Bangkok cuisine with a smattering of regional dishes, usually toned down for Californian palates. This means not only making them less peppery and gingery but also less sour since Thais enjoy hefty amounts of lime juice, tamarind, and rice vinegar. The kitchen here follows that general plan but there are a few unusual items on the menu, some of which are regional dishes while others are modern inventions.

One of these is Thai-style shu mai, which is essentially a meatball wrapped in dough and steamed. While shu mai are associated with Cantonese dim sum, the preparation is an ancient one. The Bowers Museum in Santa Ana has one on exhibit that was unearthed from a thousand-year-old archeological site. I have had shu mai in Thailand, though they were made with pork and had fairly conventional seasoning. The one here is made with ground chicken and shrimp and tastes of ginger, lemongrass, and a topping of caramelized garlic. It was an interesting novelty but not something I’d rush to order again.

I would, however, get the appetizer called “garden wrapped,” steamed cabbage leaves stuffed with a mix of ground chicken and vegetables. It’s everything I like about an Eastern European cabbage roll but lighter and fresher, and it is given an additional zing by the chili-lime dipping sauce. There are four to an order, and we liked it so much that we almost asked for more. Sanity intervened as we realized that we had probably over-ordered.

We had one person at our table who isn’t a big fan of very spicy food and three who adored it, so on this visit we ordered three items to be made relatively mild and one at full blast heat. Our entrees were crab noodle, mandarin duck, seared ahi tuna, and a braised beef dish called tom zab. The crab noodle is a fairly standard item composed of rice noodles tossed with crab, scrambled egg, scallions, and bean sprouts, so it was all about the execution rather than innovation. They nailed it. The mild, rich flavors of the main ingredients were modified with just enough scallion, garlic, and citrus to add interest.

The mandarin duck, boneless duck pieces sautéed with bok choy, had a bit more zing thanks to a sauce that included citrus and mild chili with hints of star anise. It was fragrantly herbal rather than really hot, and I might come back and ask for a hotter version because I’d like to see how it turns out.

The other relatively mild item was a novel one: ahi tuna rubbed with black pepper and sesame, briefly seared, and served over asparagus and topped with a mild Thai curry and chopped peanuts. If you need a reason to visit this restaurant, this is it. It’s an unusual dish in several ways. Though Thailand is a major exporter of tuna it’s not a popular item in that country, and when Thais eat fish they almost always cook it thoroughly rather than searing it rare. This dish makes a powerful case for adding tuna steaks to Thai cuisine. The complex mélange of flavors in the fish rub, asparagus, and curry were magnificent.    

The item that we ordered ‘Thai hot’ was tom zab, otherwise known as tom saap, slowly braised beef in a stock rich with ginger and chili that is thickened with roasted rice powder. This is an item from the Isaan region in Northeast Thailand, which is renowned for having some of the spiciest food in the country. True, some dishes from the far south have more chillies, but they are often moderated with coconut milk while Issan preparations are loaded with lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, and galangal root with vinegary fish sauce.

I had visited The Garden once before and had this item mild, and asked for it hot this time – not just American hot, but Thai hot. After making sure that I knew what I was asking for, she took the order and came back with a clay pot full of some of the hottest food I have ever liked. (I’ve had hotter, but I endured it rather than actually enjoyed it.) The mushroom and beef stew had layers of heat, dimensions of spice, and the three of us who tried it were sweating and near tears, but kept eating because it was so good. I think our expressions of mixed pain and delight must have been amusing to the staff. I know they were to the spice-intolerant person at the table who watched us with insufficiently suppressed amusement. I recommend that even if you like spicy food you order this at medium heat on the first visit, and get the thrill ride version we had the next time. Both are worth trying, and you will probably be able to find more friends who are willing to share the milder version with you.  

We chose to just have water because the restaurant doesn’t have their wine and beer license yet, and an ample dinner for the four of us ran $91. It’s a very reasonable price for cooking as assured as you’ll get in Thai Town, with a few flashes of innovation that are true to the Thai palate. The place is small so there may be a bit of a wait, but it’s worth it.

The Garden is at 210 North Aviation in Manhattan Beach. Open 11 a.m – 9 p.m. daily. Parking lot, wheelchair access good. Some vegetarian items, but advise server so fish sauces are not used. No alcohol. (310) 318-0032.

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