If you’ve been to enough Thai restaurants around town — and we certainly do have enough for you to have been to more than a few — you’re used to a certain understated design style. Which is to say, and to generalize, a generic storefront with a smattering of tables and some posters of Thailand on the walls.
There are very likely photos of the royal family as well, along with a small shrine with joss sticks slowly burning. The setting is comfortable enough, the restaurant is really all about the food and service. Though there may be a non-distracting video on a small overhead TV giving a tour of Bangkok. Maybe.
Which is why Thai District comes as such a surprise, even a shock. Situated at the quiet corner of Linden Avenue and Broadway in downtown Long Beach, it’s downright … elegant. Not uncomfortably so. But elegant nonetheless. The walls are fire-engine red. There are coved ceilings. There are candles. There’s lots of filigree. The lighting is subdued, flattering. There are exotic flowers in glass vases. Sitting next to a bustling coffee joint, it comes as a surprise to enter Thai District. And a very pleasant surprise at that.
The restaurant is a collaboration between Chef Ty Theara and restauranteur Andre Angles. Culinary Institute graduate Theara is the veteran of numerous high-end hotel kitchens, where his specialty was pastry. Angles notched credits at some of the finest French restaurants in the world, before opening the much loved Frenchy’s Bistro in Long Beach.
They met at Frenchy’s and eventually decided to go into business together. Not cooking French food or pastry but an elevated style of Thai cuisine that harkens back to Theara’s youth in Chiang Mai.
You can perceive Thai District as Thai food with French elegance, but that sounds far too fussy. For despite the good look of the place, it’s as casual as can be. This is an easy restaurant to be in and a terrific restaurant to dine in. This is both a familiar Thai restaurant and one with some fascinating twists and turns. You’ll note, from the get-go, that the number of appetizers (listed under “To Share”) are fewer than are found on most Thai menus — just six dishes.
Not that this is a problem. The list of apps is polished and honed, winnowed down to the ones that matter: crispy tofu with a complex sweet and sour cilantro peanut sauce; “Golden Bags,” deep-fried taro root and chicken in pastry; veggie intense crispy rolls; chicken wings with a kaffir lime and roasted Thai chili “nhamjim” dipping sauce … and of course, chicken satay with a very thick, very good peanut sauce.
If you’re looking for such trans-ethnic culinary excursions as barbecue chicken and barbecue ribs on this menu, well, they ain’t here. The food is highly authentic but also with a fair frisson of Theara’s experience cooking on the high end. The multi-ingredient sauces mentioned above give a pretty fair notion of that.
Though the sense of this being Thai cooking with a personal edge does persist in pretty wonderful dishes like the spicy shrimp salad, with its perfectly cooked large shrimp in a salad made better with Thai basil, chili oil and a classic lemongrass dressing.
The grilled beef salad comes in a spiced tamarind dressing. The chicken larb in a kaffir lime dressing. This chef spends a lot of hours in prep, time well spent when you bite into the food.
Consider how the chicken in the wonton soup is spiced with coriander, how the anchovies in the green papaya salad have been crisped. How gailan — a Chinese cross between kale and broccoli — is used in the pad see ew, while sour pickled mustard is sued in the kao soi egg noodle dish.
Oodles of noodles
There are noodle dishes (four in total), rice dishes (four again), and six curries to choose from, with a selection of proteins as a sort of nondessert mix-in. The curries including a kabocha pumpkin curry, which is a fine touch, made with spiced pepitas. There’s also a pineapple curry, made with candied pineapple.
And the same mix of proteins also get sautéed with a choice of 10 vegetable dishes. Fresh ginger chicken with sesame oil sounds pretty fine to me. And so does the “Too Good to Hare!” selection of dishes like spicy garlic and basil salmon, honey glazed duck, and braised pork loin and belly with tamarind and turmeric.
For dessert, there’s a coconut panna cotta and warm flourless chocolate lava cake, among other dishes. The chef hasn’t lost his pastry kitchen chops. But then, cooking pastry is like riding a bicycle. Once you know how, you know how for life.
Merrill Shindler is a Los Angeles-based freelance dining critic. Send him email at email@example.com.