vanessa.jpgSomeone has to say it: Pad thai has become as exotic as American cheese. And even that’s a stretch.

The culinary rebound to our national breakup with Chinese food, we rushed into a love affair with Thai cuisine in the early 1990s. In those heady days, it seemed so fresh and exotic after years of MSG migraines. There were recognizable vegetables, perfumed rices, steaming curries. But the bloom’s off the lemongrass.

Now the fodder of food courts and craft fairs, the sticky, gooey, brown sugar, peanut butter and ketchupy mess that usually passes for Thai food these days is downright shameful. So is there any “authentic” Thai to be had? The journey is the destination…

Aroon Thai Market (2770 Cleveland Ave., Santa Rosa, 576-0256): Ask a native Thai which restaurants they’d actually eat at and wait for the fireworks. “Oh, its all just too sweet. Thai food isn’t not supposed to be that sweet,” says Pui Maliwan, an Aroon employee, wrinkling her nose when I ask where the best Thai food is found. Walking the aisles of the tidy southeast Asian specialty store, she points to native ingredients — tamarind paste, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, galangal, and delicate fish sauces — that are too often absent or substituted in Americanized Thai cuisine. “Sometimes restaurants try to get creative, and not in a good way.” So, where does she eat? Maliwan points me to…


larb.jpgBaan Thai (424 Larkfield Center, Santa Rosa, 576-8621): Quietly hidden in the Molsberry’s shopping center in Larkfield, this pint-sized eatery is word-of-mouth only. High marks to their peanut sauce, which enhances the food  rather than launching an all-out peanut assault. Maliwan gave high marks to the pad thai as well, but peanut curry (Kang-Mus Mun) wins the day with combo of sweet and savory spices that has me craving gallons of the stuff. Which led me to…

Van Vieng Khan (3446 Santa Rosa Ave., Santa Rosa, 206-0884): Vanessa Keovanxat is the queen of Laotian cuisine in SoCo, a culinary kissin’ cousin to Thai. Thailand borders land-locked Laos, but the two cuisines have their own bloodlines. Where Thai food has sweeter, more subtle perfumes and flavors, Laotian goes for one-two punch with bold sour, salty and spicy intensity. Think Jennifer Garner versus J-Lo. The south Santa Rosa Ave. location takes a little searching out, but regulars know its worth the hunt. Larb Beef (go for the Lao-style) is a sassy mix of minced beef (you can get it with tripe and other organ meat by asking), lemon grass, mint, chili sauce and roasted rice. Vanessa also cooks up crispy quail, mouth-numbing papaya salad (with pork skins), her own fried beef jerky, whole fried tilapia, dangerously good Drunken Noodles and a peanut curry to weep for. Veer off-menu and you’ll be doubly rewarded: She usually has a secret pot of Kao Poon cooking in back, an oft-changing soup/curry served with slithery rice noodles that defies explanation. Plus on Saturday nights, the restaurant is a Laotian hang-out where, if you’re lucky, you’ll get in on orders of fried duck heads, peppered grasshoppers and karoake. Yeah, really. Which is pretty much the exact opposite of…

Sea Thai Bistro (2323 Sonoma Ave @ Montgomery Village, Santa Rosa, 707.528.8333, also in Petaluma): Refined, Thai-fusion dishes that marry authentic flavors with California cuisine. This is haute-Thai, with dishes like King Crab fried rice with dried cherries, Street Fair Noodles — a sort of smokey, bbq version of Pad Thai, and red pumpkin curry that’s rich, delicious and fragrant. However, its a difficult toss-up between their pumpkin curry and the pumpkin curry at…

Thai Taste (170 Farmers Ln # 8, Santa Rosa, 526-3888): Tops for the pumpkin curry, though there are mixed feelings in our house about their fresh rolls, which rather than the usual semi-transparent rice paper are more spongy in nature. But the peanut sauce, oh, the peanut sauce. But when it comes to soup, there’s nowhere better than…

California Thai (522 7th St, Santa Rosa, 573.1441) where you’ll find one of the  simplest, but most satisfying versions of Tom Ka Gai, a lemongrass, lime leaf, coconut milk soup. They’re also my go-to for Miang Kam, little tidbits of dried shrimp, peanuts, ginger you wrap in spinach leaves and top with palm sugar sauce.  Though there’ll always be a place in my heart for…

Jhanthong Banbua ( 2400 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa, 707.528.8048): The long-time Santa Rosa Thai fave that fronts the seedy Gold Coin hotel on Mendocino Ave., is a JC-neighborhood standby.  I’ve continued to have on-again, off-again take-out experiences, but for my money, the world’s best late-night munchie snack is hands-down their shrimp chips with peanut sauce.. Which reminds me of a spot I always seem to forget about…

Banyan Tree (20 E Washington St., Petaluma, 778-8669): One of the few Thai restaurants that haven’t peanut-sauced themselves into a corner. Here, they’re offering up creative, even innovative takes on Thai cooking that go well beyond spring rolls and tom yum soup. Fisherman’s Garden Rolls: “Delicate rice paper rolled around green leaves, cucumbers, carrots, avocado, mint, crab meat and shrimp, served chilled with peanut sauce.” Um, yes, please. Or, the delicate finger-sized spring rolls and cream-cheese and chive filled won-tons that very literally melt in the mouth. Or the Chiangmai Noodles, with curried egg noodles, chicken, spring onions, shallots and little bites of vinegary pickles (beats the pants off Pad Thai). 20 E. Washington St., Golden Eagle Center, Petaluma, 778.8669.

Still hungry? There are plenty more Thai restaurants in my arsenal. Add your fave.