An unfortunate result of visiting Thailand is that “Thai food” in America usually doesn’t measure up to the ultra-fresh, vibrant cuisine eaten half a world away. My refuge in Santa Cruz is Real Thai Kitchen and the colorful meals created by owner Ratana Bowden. Bowden, who owned a restaurant in her native Bangkok, took over the decades-old Real Thai Kitchen four years ago this month, updating the dark, kitschy faux-Asian decor to a bright dining room decorated with modern art from a Thai artist in San Francisco and bringing her favorite recipes from her homeland. “I want my guests to have a good experience for not a lot of money,” says Bowden.
As I sip a floral Thai iced tea, Bowden explains that the captivating flavors in her native cuisine are achieved by balancing what she calls “the variety of taste”—sweet, sour, salty and spicy. In different proportions, these seemingly disparate flavors enhance each other and the fresh ingredients incorporated to create a harmonious finish.
She believes many Americans are hesitant to try Thai food because they’re afraid they can’t take the heat, but more than 80 percent of her menu isn’t spicy. Many of her most popular offerings, like pineapple fried rice, green curry and pad Thai, aren’t hot at all. That said, if you want to eat like a local and spice it up, all you have to do is ask.
One of my favorite Real Thai recipes is Trout in the Jungle, a panko-crusted filet deep-fried and topped with an aromatic mix of Thai and purple basil, cilantro, mint, green apple, scallion and raw cashews, then tossed with her spicy lime dressing—a simple Thai sauce with beautiful depth. I also adore the green papaya salad, a traditional snack found on almost every street corner in Thailand. Ripe papaya is very sweet, but when it’s still green, Thai people treat it like a vegetable. Shredded and tossed with green beans, peanuts and spicy lime dressing, it’s a refreshing low-cal snack. Intensely aromatic and textured, it’s dishes like these that take me back to the heady humidity and foreign sights, sounds and smells of faraway lands.
1631 Seabright Ave., Santa Cruz. 427-2559. realthaisantacruz.com.