Absence makes the heart grow founder, as the saying goes. And for husband and wife, Peter and Laddawan (“Mae”), that couldn’t be truer. The Thailand-born duo decided that after 20 years of working 12-hour days in restaurants in America, including their own, they needed a break. But, nearly a year after selling their restaurant and retiring, Peter and Mae found themselves itching to get back into the business. So they established Chang Puak - White Elephant Restaurant in December 2006.
At White Elephant, Peter, Mae, their children, and a niece work together to serve up the same type of food Mae learned to cook in Thailand and perfected over the years. These traditional dishes range from a yellow curry with chicken to a tom yum prawn soup with a touch of chili. This soup in particular is known for its ability to clear stuffy sinuses faster than snorting pepper.
No matter what dish patrons order, the family endeavors to treat them like royalty—after all, the restaurant was named after the sacred white elephants owned by the royal family of Thailand. Like the restaurant’s guests, these elephants are fed well and are always treated with respect.
Just off Highway 1, the petite wooden building with the huge windows, classic neon sign, and flower boxes first resembles a classic beach-town café. But inside, the leafy ferns and potted plants that dominate Pacifica Thai Cuisine's entryway evoke thoughts of Thailand's lush jungles. At the same time, the scents of lemongrass, coconut milk, sweet basil, roasted chilies, and peanut sauce flood diners' senses, giving patrons an overview of the menu before they see a single page or accidentally barge into the kitchen. Curries, pan-fried noodles, seasonal seafood dishes, and barbecued meats fill the menu of faithful renditions of Thailand’s iconic dishes. The restaurant has served a wide customer base for nearly three decades, and Bay Area Vegetarians calls it “probably the most vegetarian- and vegan-friendly restaurant in Pacifica.” Vegetarian dishes reach beyond meat-free preparations of the standards to encompass thoughtful combinations of vegetables, herbs, mushrooms, tofu, and rich sauces.
Aom Phanthong—the chef and owner behind the Zagat-rated Another Monkey—constantly seeks to refine familiar Thai dishes, presenting diners with contemporary interpretations of perennial classics. She doesn't shy away from the menu's cultural roots, though. The San Francisco Chronicle praised her devotion to bold flavors in 2010, claiming, "It's admirable to enjoy food prepared by a chef who cooks as if she's at home." The San Francisco Bay Guardian, on the other hand, simply called Phanthong's food "electrifying."
This eye toward tradition lends a comforting familiarity to the menu's spicy green curry and wok-fried duck with garlic chili sauce, but Chef Phanthong also presents fusion-inspired dishes, such as the tom yum shrimp nachos on a crispy flour tortilla. Bartenders adopt a similar attitude toward fusing flavors, demonstrated in a rotating selection of Thai-influenced versions of iconic cocktails such as a lemongrass gimlet and a blueberry mojito.
Neutral wood tones lend warmth to the otherwise modern and vaguely industrial decor, with its straight-backed chairs and clean lines. A collection of Thai statuettes lines the dining room's back wall, and the lounge area features tables and stools made from actual Thai drums so that diners can greet their meals with a group drumroll.
Travel has long helped rejuvenate the mind. Proving that point, Koh Samui & The Monkey's owner's extensive journeys have served as inspiration for a menu that plays with flavors and spices, along with the ideas of traditional and modern. Mieng kum plates a pillar of traditional Thai cuisine with spinach leaves, which act as a wrap for chicken or tofu. Concerning the aromatic pumpkin curry, the San Francisco Chronicle's restaurant critic Michael Bauer praised it in his review, writing that "the pumpkin curry, crushed scallops and fried bananas are exceptional."
The artistry in each dish extends from the recipe to the presentation. Beautiful, colorful dishes first entice the eye as they're presented on crisp white tablecloths, on which candles cast the flickering shadows that keep the dying art of hand-puppet theater alive. The drink menu shakes and stirs with similar creative flair, mixing hip, top-shelf cocktails such as the pineapple-spiked Monkey in Paris.
A menu with inventive twists on tofu, duck, and pork dishes, many infused with surprising fruit accents, aided Be My Guest Thai Bistro in snagging a nod from Best of Citysearch 2008. Skilled chefs ramp up pan-fried rice and noodles with mango, avocado, and fresh pineapple, and pans crackle happily beneath seafood such as salmon and shrimp. To send mouthwatering dispatches to distant bellies, the eatery’s online ordering database aids delivery service, and a slew of sake cocktails clink together to offer joyous rice blasts without the hassle of sneaking into a king's wedding.