Thai Cuisine Express has a secretive feel to it, despite its best intentions. Tucked away in a San Pedro strip mall, the restaurant’s freestanding sign is only partly visible from the road. The menu, on the other hand screams for attention. It’s laid out like a tabloid, with loud all-caps lettering and bright photos.
The place is funky in myriad other ways, from the eclectic artwork to the old school Madonna and Journey that was blasting on my last visit. And, given the speed of the service, the inclusion of the word “express” in the restaurant’s name borders on comical. Perhaps “express” has another meaning in Thai, where the chef hails from, or Lao, the nationality of her husband, the host. Maybe in one of these tongues, “express” doesn’t mean “fast,” but rather “home-style food, carefully and patiently prepared.”
The food is also hot—insanely so—such that I feel obligated to insist that you never, ever order anything “Thai Hot” or even “Hot.” I don’t care how many green chiles you can eat; this is a different animal. The highest I can handle is “medium,” and the spice level in mild suggests they could use an additional category at the low end. The menu wisely points out that Thai Hot is “irreversible,” and that management is not responsible for “side effects” due to spice level. I’ve taken to ordering everything mild, with a serving of homemade chile paste on the side with which to self medicate as necessary.
The menu wisely points out that Thai Hot is “irreversible,” and that management is not responsible for “side effects” due to spice level.
While the menu has plenty of dishes that will be familiar to Thai food veterans, I believe the strength of Thai Cuisine Express lies off the beaten path. The tom yum, pad thai and papaya salad, for example, hardly stand out from others to be found in town. But the guew teaw, Thai-style pho, is a mysterious trip to a place you’ve probably never been. It looks like pho, complete with a side salad of sprouts, basil and cilantro. But the broth is darker and less sweet, the noodles are wider, and the experience will be intriguing to aficionados of the Vietnamese version.
Another unusual dish is a mango salmon salad that features a fried piece of fish in carrot, onions, cashews, “cabbages” and of course mango. The crispy fish and the acidic, lime dressing and sweet mango combine and cantilever for a balanced, memorable dish.
There are several unique curry options, including a decadent pumpkin red curry and a panang curry-drenched piece of salmon. All of the curries are rich and on the sweet side, but given their inevitable heat, those qualities will help you stay conscious. The green curry was packed with Thai eggplant in addition to your choice of proteins. And if you’re not in the market for meat, Thai Cuisine Express does tofu very well, crispy on the outside and molten on the inside.
Hanging on the wall is a framed certificate from a cooking school in Bangkok indicating the completion of a Thai style noodle course by Ratchaneekorn Yapawong, the chef. This helps explain why the “silver noodles” in the yum woon-sen (bean thread noodles tossed with ground chicken and salad) were so spectacular. It was the first time, after many attempts, that I understood why anybody would ever eat these noodles. They were not rubbery, but relaxed and fun to chew, and the vegetables and lime dressing throughout made it irresistible.
But the all-out winner, besting not only the other noodle dishes but everything else on the menu as well, is the drunken noodles. The wide noodles have a fungal, herbal sauce that’s as intoxicating as the dish’s name implies.
Although sticky rice and mango dessert is hardly unique, the version at Thai Cuisine Express stands out among its peers. And the fact that it’s described as “sweet sticky rice with ripped mango” doesn’t hurt, either. Once I watched a woman sit down and order just that and a pot of tea, nothing else. She appeared to be having a private moment with her ripped mango. And having tried it myself, I understood.