Forgive me. I may have been a poor conversationalist at Suwanasak Thai Cuisine, what with punctuating our table talk by murmuring "Mmm!" with the frequency and fervor of an Iron Chef judge.
Seriously, come here. The space caps the wing of a small strip mall, and the dining area is barely larger than my bedroom, but I felt lucky that we didn't have to fight for one of the four tables. It's rare I have a meal like this, where I'm floored, really floored, with satisfaction.
Egg rolls generally fit into that chapter in my head titled "Anything deep-fried is pretty good." But Suwanasak's egg roll caused an intense, immediate infatuation. "Mushrooms! It's the dried mushrooms!" I said, examining a cross-section. The mushrooms, chicken, vermicelli, carrots, cabbage and green onion are in just the right proportions. With this combination it's easy for places to overload on the cheaper fillings - the noodles and cabbage - but these were exquisite: meaty, fragrant and quite the steal at three for $2.95.
My favorite appetizer here was the moo waam, barbeque pork ribs in a sweet sauce hit with cilantro and lemongrass. The fat was crispy, the meat succulent. I even used slices of cucumber on the side to scoop up the remaining bits of sauce.
The spring rolls were heavy on the vermicelli, but that may have been a result of the kitchen accommodating a vegetarian tablemate who swapped out the shrimp and turkey for tofu. The whole mint leaves, however, were a great pick-me-up on a hot day.
Take a stab at the whole sweet chili fried fish (tilapia), which was my favorite entrée: a little sweet, a little spicy, with delectably tender fish. It's a great dish to share, and it's fun to pick apart the fish and then flip it over to get what's left on the other side. By then it will be saturated with the sauce and even more of a treat than the first side. The chopped bell peppers, too, were perfectly cooked.
Across the board, the dishes at Suwanasak feature an abundance of fresh herbs, with cilantro, mint and Thai basil the most prominent. The moo pha katien pha prid Thai, a pork stir-fry with cilantro, marinated black and white peppercorns, lemongrass and ginger, is truly a delight. It tastes just as good as it smells, assertive and herbaceous.
For summer, the chicken larb is a good call. The cold chopped chicken and tripe salad with love bites of Thai chili is pretty, with mix-ins of lime leaves, cilantro and green onion, plus refreshing whiffs of ginger and lemongrass.
For curry lovers, the green curry won't disappoint. It's a substantive jumble of pumpkin, bamboo shoots, carrot and eggplant that's great with tofu. (Although tofu isn't listed as a protein choice on the menu, it is available.)
The noodle dishes were perhaps the least exciting on their own: the phad Thai and phad see ew (a noodle dish with egg and Chinese broccoli) were slightly on the dry side, but a friend at the table who had been to Thailand reached for the four-jar table setting of dried chilis, fried peanuts, chili paste and sugar and instructed us to do some doctoring, which he said was typical in Thailand. If you go overboard on the spices, just add some sugar to kill the heat. It works.
Save room for the fresh mango and sticky rice dessert. It's a huge serving, so make sure your dining companions are on board for that commitment.
The restaurant is an unassuming diamond amid overwhelming stretches of suburban west-side strip malls. But make the journey here. Suwanasak is family-run (it's always a good sign to see a troupe of women cooking in back) and the prices are extremely reasonable for the quality of food served. The service is more along the lines of counter service - seat yourselves, grab some menus and order up front. Here, the show is on the plate. And I will be back asking for encores.