An unfortunate result of visiting Thailand is that â€œThai foodâ€ in America usually doesnâ€™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. â€œI want my guests to have a good experience for not a lot of money,â€ 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 â€œthe variety of tasteâ€â€”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 theyâ€™re afraid they canâ€™t take the heat, but more than 80 percent of her menu isnâ€™t spicy. Many of her most popular offerings, like pineapple fried rice, green curry and pad Thai, arenâ€™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 dressingâ€”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 itâ€™s still green, Thai people treat it like a vegetable. Shredded and tossed with green beans, peanuts and spicy lime dressing, itâ€™s a refreshing low-cal snack. Intensely aromatic and textured, itâ€™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.