Word of mouth is gold in the restaurant business. Advertising, critics' reviews, money spent on remodeling — all pale in comparison to the power of informal, one-on-one recommendations from friends and family.
Thai Kitchen is a small place in northwest Bakersfield that feasts on such talk, and folks who work at The Californian have been pitching the place to me for some time.
Newsroom operations director Christine Peterson emailed me: “I was blown away by how good it is … Absolutely everything was delicious, so flavorful, and so distinctive. I loved how there was a note on the front of the menu that said they love cooking for their patrons, and if ever they say they don't have something on the menu on a given day, it's because they couldn't find the freshest ingredients that meet their standards. It went on to have a line to the effect of ‘It's just not worth it!’ Everything I had was worth it. It's a good thing the place is far from my house or I'd be there way too often. This way, it keeps it special, I suppose. I don't think I've ever suggested a place to review before, but I was just that impressed.”
Sports reporter Trevor Horn is another fan. His wife works for a medical office and all the doctors love going there. And I have friends who are vegetarians who claim the veggie choices here are so artfully prepared. I can’t remember anyone giving me a negative report on this restaurant.
Since it had been years since I last reviewed the place, we stopped by to check it out, and, yes, it is tiny (nine tables for four people each), in a strip mall near New Vintage Grill, Starbucks and Don Perico. The parking lot is usually crowded, as is the dining room. We visited on a weekday night and got the last empty table. It’s largely a husband-and-wife operation so there may be a delay in getting seated, but some things are worth the wait.
What really makes this place great is the freshness of the ingredients. As they allude to on the menu cover, these folks have standards. They choose so carefully that the veggies always taste farm fresh in our experience and they won’t serve lesser “good enough” plates. They may even guide you in ordering. For example, I was interested in ordering the Chuu-Chee shrimp ($16.95) because it has lemongrass in a red curry sauce, and the waiter steered me toward the spicy shrimp ($16.95), gruffly insisting it was better. The three of us also ordered the honey orange chicken ($13.95) and the yellow curry chicken ($12.95).
It’s kind of funny to lump all Thai restaurants together as there are at least six different regional cuisines under that label, just like Italian, Indian and Mexican fare have many different regional specialties. What Thai Kitchen offers might best be described as Bangkok cuisine, with its emphasis on curries, noodles and urban/Chinese/Portuguese influences. Almost everything is available with tofu as a protein option. With the small staff we were worried the food would take too long to arrive after we ordered, but it was on the table within 20 minutes.
I can understand why someone recommended the honey orange chicken to me. Think of thickly battered balls of white meat chicken, perfectly shaped really, with all the appealing sauce of orange chicken and none of the bitterness usually contributed by the orange rind. The yellow curry chicken had a warm creamy kick that had my female companions spooning the sauce over the steamed rice. I’m certain the coconut milk, which makes everything better, was a key to the charm. There was broccoli, cabbage, white onions and artfully cut carrot discs in the curry chicken that were a welcome addition. I can see why the waiter recommended the shrimp, not too spicy and in a superb mix of vegetables (fresh mushrooms, corn cob, carrots, white onions and fingerroot, also known as krachai or Chinese ginger).
How good was the food? All that was left when he brought the bill were the sauces and a few stray vegetable bits. He looked shocked that we weren’t going to take anything home. Our job was through here, Sir.
The flexibility of the kitchen is amazing for such a small place. There are six protein options for most of the entrees, including tofu or squid. And if you’re carrying around ideas of great Thai food from your travels but haven’t been able to find anyone who can duplicate it, that challenge on the front of the menu that Peterson referred to above may be your invite to try to stump the chef.
Unfortunately we did not have room on this visit for an excellent dessert that I can recommend, the sweet/sticky rice with mango and coconut custard. Mango makes everything better, I know, but with the coconut and the perfect balance of creamy and sweet, this is a must-order.
Thai Kitchen can be recommended for a fine dining experience.