I travel for a living, which, for a food lover, has its advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, I get to visit restaurants all over the country; on the other hand, if I find a restaurant I really love, it may be months or years before I get to go back. I currently split most of my time between South Fulton County, GA and the Monterey Bay, CA, and have been fortunate enough to find Thai restaurants of exceptional quality in both areas.
Many people judge Thai restaurants by how spicy the food is. This system is flawed for 2 reasons: first, not everyone likes their food to be blisteringly spicy; second, ‘spicy’ is not a synonym for ‘flavorful.’ The true test is not how spicy the food is, but how spicy it can be based on the customer’s request, and how flavorful the food is regardless of its level of heat. I’ve had some really bad Thai food where they tried to mask the lack of flavor by dumping in extra chilies. The food should taste just as good at 0 stars as it should at 5 stars (although, in my opinion, if you can’t handle at least 3 stars you shouldn’t be in a Thai restaurant in the first place…). All of my favorite Thai restaurants have mastered the ability to serve food that is excellent for novices and daredevils alike, which is fortunate because I can feel safe recommending them to family and friends.
I do feel the need to make the following disclaimer: Thai cuisine is not homogeneous, and it does vary from region to region. I prefer “Isan” style, from the northeast region, which uses more spicy and pungent flavors. In contrast, “Bangkok” style tends to be sweeter and less spicy. It’s strictly a matter of preference, but if you’re used to Bangkok-style Thai food, Isan-style may be a bit of a shock to your palate.
It’s conventional wisdom among foodies that the best food is usually found in small, hole-in-the-wall type restaurants. My favorite Thai restaurants are all rather hard to find, but don’t let their unassuming exteriors fool you; these are all true gems and well worth the search.
731 Munras Avenue
Mon-Fri 11 am – 9 pm
Sat 12 pm – 9 pm
Sun 4 pm – 9 pm
Krua Thai is just a few blocks off the main drag (Alvarado Street), tucked away behind a Denny’s. Everything on the menu is excellent: this is no-holds-barred Thai food the way they make it in Thailand. They don’t go by the standardized “star” system in terms of spiciness. The basic options are “regular,” “spicy,” or “Thai spicy” (be careful with that one; if you tell them you can handle “Thai spicy” they’ll take you at your word).
Two must-haves on the menu are the Som Tum (papaya salad) and Pad Gra Pow (basil stir-fry). The Som Tum is the perfect combination of cool, crisp shredded papaya with salty fish sauce, spicy chilies, and pungent pickled crab. It’s an amazing flavor combination, and I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t love it after trying it here. The Pad Gra Pow is best with ground pork, and make sure to ask for Cai Dow (fried egg) on top.
This is a family-run restaurant, often with several generations of the family working at any given time. They have the traditional Thai iced tea and iced coffee, as well as hot tea, soft drinks, and an eclectic selection of domestic and imported beers and local wines. The service is friendly and quick. Krua Thai doesn’t take reservations, but the wait time is usually short, and always worth it. There is a small parking lot and some on-street parking, so it’s usually not difficult to park somewhere close.
One thing I particularly love about Krua Thai is the quirky atmosphere, with its odd, East-meets-West, shabby-chic decor. The Monterey I grew up in had a funky, eccentric, slightly run-down charm that has all but disappeared behind an artificial, tourist-trap veneer. Krua Thai is one of the stubborn hold-outs; it’s not only an authentic Thai experience, it’s also an authentic Monterey experience.
1760 Fremont Blvd, # F-1
Mon-Fri 11 am – 3:30 pm
Mon-Fri 5 pm – 9 pm
Sat 12 pm – 9 pm
Baan Thai has been a staple of Monterey’s Thai food scene for years, and for good reason. Like Krua Thai, Baan Thai does authentic Isan-style Thai food, and their lunch specials are one of the best values around.
The highlights of Baan Thai’s extensive menu are definitely the Panang Curry and Massamun Curry. Both are rich and flavorful, and they don’t skimp on the meat or the vegetables. If you’re not a fan of curry, try the Kai Koar (flat noodles stir-fried with chicken, egg, ground peanuts and assorted vegetables) or the Pad See Ew (flat noodles stir-fried with meat, egg, broccoli and carrots in brown sauce).
The service here is always very quick and friendly, but never rushed. Baan Thai does take reservations, which I would recommend because the dining room is a little small for such a popular restaurant. For regular customers, make sure to ask about the “Buy 10 Lunches, Get The 11th Free” deal. They offer all the traditional Thai drinks, i.e. hot tea, iced tea, and iced coffee, as well as a full-range of soft drinks, beers, and local wines. The restaurant has a light and airy atmosphere, but can be a little hard to find, being tucked away in a small shopping center. Parking is relatively ample, especially during dinner time.
Baan Thai is in the middle of a business district, and it’s clear that this is a local favorite. It’s a little off the beaten path, so the clientele is mostly regulars. In fact, most people who eat here soon become regulars because of the fantastic food and service.
Flavors of Thailand
847 Spur 138
Mon-Fri 11 am – 3 pm
Mon-Thur 4:30 pm – 9 pm
Fri 4:30 pm – 10 pm
Sat 11 am – 10 pm
Flavors of Thailand is one of the Atlanta area’s best-kept secrets, and proves that you don’t need to brave the downtown area for an excellent meal. Located about 20 minutes south of metro Atlanta, Flavors of Thailand is well worth the drive.
Flavors of Thailand has a menu as extensive as any you’ll find at any good Thai restaurant, but honestly, all the times I’ve eaten here, I usually don’t even make it past the Salads page. This is where they truly excel. The Som Tum (papaya salad) and Larb (ground meat salad) are fantastic, and are filling enough to be meals by themselves. My favorite is the Neua Nam Tok (grilled steak salad), which combines savory grilled beef with onions, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, scallions, cilantro and spicy lime juice. Be careful with the spice levels, though: like all good Thai restaurants, you might want to start off with “medium spicy” before testing your mettle with “Thai spicy.”
The service has always been friendly and the wait time has always been short. Hot tea, Thai iced tea, Thai iced coffee, soft drinks, beers, and wines are all available. The parking lot is huge and the restaurant is easily accessible, but they also take reservations, which are recommended on weekends. If you are staying in the area, they also specialize in take-out orders, and the orders are always ready very quickly.