- Reporters Desk
By Richard Foss, Guest Columnist
Depending on which story you believe, when Wolfgang Puck named his first restaurant Spago, he either didn’t know or didn’t care what the word meant – he just liked the sound. It was oddly memorable and sounded sophisticated and that was all that mattered.
If you have gotten this far without stopping to Google that, it’s the Italian word for string. Yes, the sign for that most famous California cuisine restaurant, the one that spawned a thousand imitators, looks mildly silly to Italians. Restaurant names are all over the map, often celebrating the name of the chef or region, perhaps the house specialty, but sometimes just a non sequitur.
Baramee, the Thai restaurant on Sixth Street in San Pedro, is different. The name has no direct translation in English, but is a Buddhist concept that combines charisma, spiritual authority and integrity. It’s a mystic aspiration that might seem at odds with the mundane business of serving people food.
I didn’t know that when I went inside, but could tell that something interesting was going on. A triangle of shelves on one wall held statues of Buddhist deities who stare impassively toward a plain brick wall, a striking contrast of east and west, divine and ordinary. Beneath the deities were the bar and a comfortable dining area. We had planned to sit in the garden patio area but found this combination of ancient and modern to be a fine alternative.
The menu offers classic Thai specialties plus a few modern fusion dishes. We started with classics: chicken larb and tofu triangles. The latter are about as simple as anything you can order, triangles of bean curd flash-fried and rushed to the table along with dipping sauce. Since even good tofu tastes like tofu, the only variables are the execution and the sauce. These arrived crisp outside and soft within, with a sweet and spicy sauce topped with chopped peanuts. It’s a world-class snack, albeit something you should never order to go because they’re best straight from the fryer.
One of my companions who wasn’t familiar with larb glanced at the dish disinterestedly and said, “Oh, just ground chicken.” Then he tried a bite and discovered otherwise. Larb is from the Issan region near Laos, where they like things spicy, sour, and heavily herbal, and the combination of lime juice, slightly funky fish sauce, mint, and red and green onion accomplishes that nicely. We had asked for it ‘medium spicy,’ and had a nice bit of lip and tongue tingle when the plate was empty. The version here was light on the roughly ground toasted rice that gives it a distinctive texture. But the flavors were excellent.
Our next item was a sweet and spicy shrimp salad – not a Thai dish strictly speaking, since lettuce salads are almost unknown in that country. It’s too hot for salad lettuces to grow well there. I went to an American-style Thai restaurant in Chiangmai where salads were regarded as exotic and strange. This salad was a mix of lettuces, cucumber, carrots, and cabbage topped by grilled shrimp in a sweet hot sauce. The shrimp had a little smoky grill flavor and the hot sauce over a cool salad was a nice touch, but it wasn’t my favorite item of the evening.
Our other mains were a “crying tiger” ribeye steak, fried trout with green apple, cashews, and chili lime, roast duck with spinach, panang soft shell crab curry and a seafood pad Thai. The trout was a standout, the battered and fried fish topped with tart green apple slices, cashews, sautéed vegetables, and an onion-lime chili sauce. It’s not traditional Thai because neither trout or apples are native, but this was a brilliant fusion of Thai and Californian ideas. Crying Tiger is simple: a grilled steak served with a sauce made with fish essence, garlic, tamarind, sugar and spices. It’s a Southeast Asian Worcestershire sauce (a fair comparison because they’re made with almost the same ingredients —look on the side of a bottle if you don’t believe me.) The steak here was a perfect medium rare as requested and delicious, though it was served uncustomarily not sliced making it harder to share.
The panang curry had a healthy portion of soft shell crab in a thick red curry with coconut and fresh basil, but was a bit milder than expected. All the flavors were there, but they were likely deliberately muted to accommodate our non-Thai palates.
The duck was a conventional Chinese style crisp-roasted duck, made superb by a mound of lightly sautéed spinach. This had been tossed with a sauce that used sweet vinegar and delicate herbs. If I knew how to make it, I’d be stealing the idea for home.
The only disappointment was the seafood pad Thai, which had plenty of shrimp, mussels, and squid but was bland and had overcooked noodles. Pad Thai usually has bright flavors of cilantro and textures of peanut, cabbage, and bean sprouts, but this was soft and mild. It was the only thing we had that I wouldn’t order again.
We paired our meal with Thai iced tea, house-made lemonade, and wine from their unusually good selection. They offer Reisling, sauvignon blanc and pinot grigio, all of which have enough sweetness and acidity to match this food. There is also a good selection of beer, which is more traditional.
Dinner for four hungry people ran $132, a tad expensive but worth it for the elegant environment, good service and food quality. Baramee would do well in Thai Town. That’s not something that can be said of most restaurants that serve communities without an expatriate population. They have integrity and charisma, and while I can’t guarantee the other spiritual aspects, they sure know how to cook.
Baramee is at 354 W. 6th St. in San Pedro. Open daily from 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. There only is street parking. Patio dining and wheelchair access good. Reservations are accepted. It offers local delivery.
Details: (310) 521-9400; barameethai.com.