Rice Thai Cuisine
387 E. Main St.
Ventura
641-3573
$3-17

Rice Thai Cuisine’s interior is crisp and zen — more like a restaurant you’d find in Santa Monica than Ventura. Due to the layout and simplicity, the interior feels worlds away from its predecessor, Cholada.

They’ve opened up the center and put long banquets on either side. Light pine tables are dressed with white plates and apple-green chopsticks.

Containers of living grass and green and white mums make the space feel alive, and an off-white curtain running down one side softens the space.

The menu is chic and straightforward. It offers classics like stir fries, red, green and yellow curries, drunken noodles and pad Thai but also more unusual choices.

The deep-fried beef jerky immediately commanded my attention, as did the corn cakes (a vegetarian version of fish cakes). I was also drawn to the mussaman curry (sweet and sour) and a pineapple and tomato red curry.

The specialties range from Siamese sizzling spare ribs to deep-fried catfish, a dish named “tofu party” and basil mussels.

Rather than a wine list, you get one for hot tea blends such as wild blueberry, apple blossom and decaffeinated strawberry cherry.

There were also wines, beers and sake and a selection of soju (a distilled rice liquor similar to vodka), martinis and cocktails. We tried the lychee ginger-pear martini with a strawberry sugar rim and the cucumber ginger with the lemon-lime sugar rim.

Both martinis took a while, but our waitress explained they are just learning how to make them. They were lightly sweet, subtly flavored essences with tart, sugary punches of fluorescent-bright flavorful crystals around the rims that resembled Pop Rocks.

Our waitress for the night (part of the family operating the restaurant) had helped create the menu. Her descriptions were precise and helpful.

We decided to sample the meang khum and the deep-fried beef jerky appetizers as well as the pla goong, a shrimp salad featured that night.

As we waited for our appetizers, we noted that nothing but boy-band songs were coming out of the speakers. Simultaneously, King of the Hill played on the television above the bar as a digital screen played slideshows of Thai dishes. The entertainment selections we found to be less than zen.

Our plates arrived all at once and were, on the whole, beautiful, generous portions. Admittedly, the plate of deep-fried beef jerky wasn’t going to win “most photogenic”— dark, curled pieces of meat are just hard to dress up, even on a bed of carrots and lettuce. But the other dishes were stunning, particularly the meang khrum.

Ours came on fresh lettuce leaves, though usually served on spinach. On top of the leaves were diced shallots, cooked shrimp, lime, toasted coconut, cashew nuts and a chili. You drizzle it with a viscous, sweet tamarind sauce and pop it in your mouth in one complete bite.

That first taste was amazing. The sweet shallots, coconut and sauce mixed with the lime, shrimp and the cool lettuce leaf. It was oh-so-incredibly delicious I could hardly wait until the next bite! Then a tiny dormant volcano ignited in my mouth. My eyes became liquid pools and my companion noted I was “crying” at the table.

The waitress had mentioned meang khum contained a hidden surprise. I watched as my companion took a bite and started downing his water.

The fire was so intense that I decided to dig into my next bite to find the culprit. There it lay, well hidden beneath the lovely pile of innocuous ingredients, the tiniest piece of a fresh green Thai chili with its seeds intact. Like cowards, we removed the chilies from our next bites and cried no further tears.

The deep-fried jerky is sirloin that’s marinated, sliced, then deep fried. According to our waitress, it’s a snack often served with beer in Thailand. It’s a bit chewy, though not like jerky you’d find here, and it has a sweet, soy, teriyaki flavor. The dipping sauce it came with was spicy and flavored much like sriracha.

The shrimp salad was glorious. The shrimp were cut in half before being grilled. Crisp lettuce, cashew nuts and green onions were all dressed with a light lime dressing with a hint of fish sauce. This is a salad I must have again!

Our entrée, Crying Tiger, arrived. It’s listed on the menu as marinated beef with an Esan spicy dipping sauce, sticky rice and apple slaw. My companion took a bite of the sticky rice, some of the raw grated apple slaw and a piece of the marinated beef. Then he desperately grabbed his water.

He thought the culprit was the dipping sauce but I failed to find its real heat. Upon further investigation, I discovered several pieces of the same tiny fresh chilies and their seeds mixed into the apple slaw — behold, another hidden surprise!

Our dessert, the Chan(n)el Island Surprise, was something built for a snow queen. Fluffy, white, cool, coconut ice cream atop warm, sweet, sticky rice, surrounded with chewy cubes of coconut jelly and gelatinous sugar palm seeds topped with crispy coconut. It cooled our mouths, soothed our stomachs and was fun to eat.

Rice Thai Cuisine is zen with zing. The atmosphere is serene, the entertainment mixed, and the food full of unusual textures and tastes — a true adventure! Just make sure you always have a full glass of water, and be prepared for hidden surprises!    

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