By Frank Sabatini Jr. | Restaurant Review
Camouflaged within the blur of chain eateries along Midway Drive is the long-established Kanda Thai Cuisine, which used to be known as Thai Time II until the owner, Kanda, renamed it after herself.
Located in the dated Nordic Village strip plaza, the spacious restaurant is a tranquil sanctuary from other urban Thai joints that greet you with noise, crowds and cramped seating. In terms of space, this is more like Lotus Thai in Hillcrest, sans the imperial décor and trickling water fountain panels.
Sleek and ultra-clean, hubby and I ducked in with a taste for massaman curry, a fiercely flavorful amalgamation of coconut milk, tamarind paste, chilies, spices and peanuts draped typically over chicken and potatoes. We couldn’t forget having it recently at the hip and modern Soi 30th in North Park, where it’s offered with beef and tasted sensational.
Kanda offers nearly every type of protein in its curry and stir-fry dishes — beef, pork, chicken, duck, shrimp and squid. And though the menu is rather pedestrian, you’ll find a few standouts such as sour pork sausage, minty num-tok salad with broiled pork or beef, and roasted duck with red curry and pineapple.
The “grilled beef meatball” was going to be our starter, but our endearing waitress couldn’t clearly explain its specs when we inquired. She told us that it isn’t made with ground beef or sliced beef, but rather constructed like a fish ball “with all kinds of things mixed in.”
Hmm. When we asked if they’re made in-house, she responded with candid honesty, “No. They come frozen.” We decided to pass.
An appetizer of “gently fried” pot stickers proved a safer choice. Their casings were pastry-like and non-greasy, as though they were baked. Inside was a tasty mulch of finely chopped chicken and vegetables. Vinegar-spiked soy sauce served alongside made them sing.
Hubby ordered his requisite tom kha soup with chicken, which was as milky and slurp-worthy as any. I chose po tak, a clear soup that’s a little less common to San Diego Thai menus.
Thin medallions of pork were my protein of choice. They were lean and mingled with onions, peppers and mushrooms in what I’m assuming was chicken stock. Lemon grass, basil leaves and my request for “medium spicy” made the soup all the more wonderful, giving it a tangy, fiery essence similar to level-five tom kha, but minus the coconut milk stirred in.
The same slices of pork graced hubby’s broccoli stir fry. Always fearful of spicy dishes in Thai restaurants, he requested level one. Though too tame for my taste, I was impressed by the slight smokiness that infused the basic array of broccoli, carrots, mushrooms and meat. In Chinese cooking, that’s called “wok breath,” achieved when the gas flames periodically lick the ingredients during the rapid cooking process.
The massaman curry I ordered with chicken was anticlimactic. For starters, it wasn’t spicy, really more like a zero than the level-five heat I requested. The curry itself lacked the dark, copper color of massaman and the depth of flavor that goes with it.
In a blind taste test, I would have guessed it as tom kha soup, which isn’t a bad thing provided you can live without the coriander, cinnamon, tamarind, cardamom, garlic and a host of other ingredients that give this thick, exotic “gravy” its universal allure.
Despite the letdown, I won’t write off Kanda. The environment and service were pleasant. And I’m told by aficionados of Thai food the kitchen does wonders with pork rib soup, red curry and spicy fried rice.
As with most Thai restaurants, you can save a few bucks when visiting for lunch (11 a.m. to 3 p.m.), when dishes such as pad Thai noodles, spicy eggplant and the colored curries are served with soup, salad and a vegetable egg roll. The all-inclusive deals start at $6.95 and graduate in price to $9.95, depending on your choice of protein.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press) and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.