Imagine this: At 7:30 p.m. on a Thursday night, you walk into a restaurant in Ventura with a friend. You sit down at a table by the window, take a quick look around and realize you are the only people in the place. Then, an affable waitress brings you water, chats for a bit and explains that the restaurant you are sitting in has been at that exact location for over 20 years.
You’ve lived in Ventura for close to 16 years and pride yourself on being intimately familiar with all the eating establishments that exist. You look around again — scratch your head. You are not trapped in a lost episode of Twin Peaks; this is not The Twilight Zone; you have simply passed through the doors of a restaurant that is still truly a secret … a hidden gem … off the beaten path.
The Lunch Box sits on a side street off Market, in a rather industrial section of Ventura. And, despite its roadside diner-ish façade (boxy with neon beer signs in the window) and its sandwich-and-fries lunch menu, in the evening it transforms itself into a totally authentic Thai restaurant with an impressively expansive menu.
Faced with so many options, my friend and I decided on quite an array of food. To start: vegetarian egg rolls. Then, red curry with tofu, green curry with chicken and, as an afterthought, an order of spicy eggplant. All Thai dishes at the Lunch Box can be made as spicy or as mild as you’d like. We went with medium, which was hot enough to make my beer (they offer Thai beer, but I went with a Newcastle) all the more enjoyable.
The veggie egg rolls came with a clear sweet sauce and a spicy yellow mustard. Filled with cabbage and carrots and a variety of other vegetables, the egg rolls were delicious and deceptively filling. However, it was the eggplant that was the star of the meal. Served in a rich brown sauce and cooked to perfection, the spicy eggplant was, well, literally like butter. It just sort of melted in your mouth. While we had enough leftover curry for lunch the next day, we didn’t leave a scrap of eggplant behind.
Speaking of the curry, the green was exceptional, while the red left a little to be desired. Filled with a generous amount of chicken and sprinkled with peas and chiles, the green curry was subtle with no overly dominant flavors of coconut milk or fish sauce (which can ruin a good curry). It was spicy, as our waitress had promised, and its lightness perfectly complimented the richer flavors of the eggplant.
As we paid our bill and walked out the door, I half expected to turn around and find the place gone — vanished like a figment of my imagination. Thankfully, it remained there, lights flickering in my rearview mirror as I drove home.
As a side note: Everything tasted even better the next day. And, really, isn’t that the true test of a good Thai restaurant anyway?