Doing Thai right in Camarillo
By Ron Russ 01/24/2013
65 E. Daily Drive
It’s quite an accomplishment for an independent restaurant to remain open past its first year, let alone a Thai restaurant in Camarillo that’s been in business since 1984! Boasting four-star averages from both Yelp and TripAdvisor, Charn Thai is a decently kept secret with a very loyal customer base. Located in the Las Posas Plaza shopping center, Charn is another example of how I’ve learned, time and time again, not to judge a restaurant by its strip-mall location. In fact, I almost get more excited now when I hear that good food comes from a dodgy location — “Hey man, you gotta check out this Kazakhstani restaurant — it’s in a gas station!” “What? Sounds great!” Very hipster of me, I know.
So my wife and I chose to enjoy lunch at Charn. I had eaten there for dinner in the past so it wouldn’t have been surprising for the restaurant to be crowded, but I was impressed that, for noon on a Thursday, every seat inside the restaurant was taken. The owner, Joy, greeted us with a warm, familiar smile just as a couple stood up, so we were seated right away — score! The décor is very quaint and modest. The small dining room in front leads to a long hallway of two-person booths running parallel to the kitchen. You get the picture that Charn is set up for speed rather than comfort, so expect to place your order and have that food piping-hot on your table soon thereafter. This form of quick dining at Asian restaurants is a custom that I’m growing to love. In contrast to Western-style dining, it completely eliminates the often useless updates from a server — “Hey, ya’ll, I checked with the kitchen again and your salads are still being tossed and should be on your table in the near future. Is there anything else I can get for you in the meantime?” I find myself tempering sarcasm in these situations to avoid a boot to the shin from my wife, who is much sweeter than I. At Charn, you place your order, you eat, you smile, you leave.
We began our meal with the dish that I insist you order at Charn, it is the tom kha gai soup (with shrimp). I kid you not, I want to bathe in this soup to start my day. There is so much flavor coming from the coconut broth, galangal, lemongrass, chili paste, mushrooms, shrimp and green onion that it’s actually surprising to find that the balance of this dish is razor sharp. I would give this soup a 10 out of 10 with no room for improvement. We followed that up with the “Chef’s Favorite Seafood Salad.” The salad (iceberg lettuce and mixed greens) had a refreshing, yet zesty roasted-garlic chili-lime vinaigrette that we both loved. The seafood blend consisted of squid, shrimp and bay scallops, which were accompanied by lemongrass, herbs and onion. The salad packed excellent flavor with nice textural contrasts. I would say, however, that the bay scallops didn’t improve the dish and the squid was too chewy, even for squid. That being said, the flavor of the salad was authentic Thai, and the dressing was one of the best I’ve tasted in a long time.
We scanned the menu in search of our entrees and nearly got lost in the process. The menu is massive and has some very unique offerings, including curry dishes, honey barbecue pork ribs, fish entrees, crispy roasted honey duck, vegetarian dishes and, of course, the traditional Thai rice and noodle dishes. The menu can be overwhelming with at least 81 different meals to choose from (which is about 60 more options than I usually prefer). We went with the lunch special of housemade barbecue pork chow mein, shrimp pad Thai and fried rice with egg. The first words my wife said were, “This pad Thai is perfect.” The noodles are light and don’t clump together, the sauce is exactly what you want it to be, the shrimp are nicely cooked, and the bean sprouts, green onion and crushed peanuts round the dish out beautifully. I’m literally eating leftovers of the pad Thai as I type this article — so you know it’s good. The fried rice tasted light and fresh — not typical of my experiences with Thai food in Ventura County, where it often tastes heavy. The slight char on the grains of rice give you some caramelized flavor, and that proved to be a very positive difference for me. As for the daily special of barbecue pork chow mein, it tasted like old-school Chinese comfort food, but definitely strayed away from the balanced Thai flavors that I would stick with at Charn.
Of the eight Thai restaurants where I’ve eaten in Ventura County, I personally have to put Charn at the top of the list. The flavors coming from the authentic Thai dishes are very consistent but most importantly, balanced. I do wish they pared the menu down by at least half, but I have to assume that variety works for them because they are going on 29 years of being in business, so who am I to talk?