From Our Editors
Zen Yai Thai Restaurant
Fans of Zen Yai Thai Restaurant might add the eatery it to the already impressive list of hidden gems in The Tenderloin district. Or, they might not even mention it at all in an effort to keep the small authentic eatery their own little secret. If we’re being honest, though, the word is already out. Zen Yai is the home of what could be one of the most talked-about Boat Noodles dishes this side of the Pacific. And its many-colored curries and Thai barbecue are the stuff that make foodies resent the human stomach’s limited capacity. Good thing they don’t have to worry about saving room for dessert; the house sweets have all been packaged and placed at the front counter, making them easy to grab for enjoyment later.
Inside, the simple dining room features deep red walls, modern accents, and a few chalkboard menus for Thai speakers only. Don’t worry, though—you’ll get by just fine if English is your only food-ordering language.
Signature Spotlight: Boat Noodles
All the food at Zen Yai boasts a plucked-from-Thailand authenticity, but one dish in particular stands out in this regard: the boat noodles soup. Named after a dish served by vendors who travel by boat in parts of Thailand, the version here is the item many people come to Zen Yai for, even though it’s not even listed on the English menu. The popular, but somewhat secret dish can only be found on the Thai-only menu, so non-Thai-speakers must ask for it by name.
Cooks begin by making broth the old-school way—from boiled beef bones. They then add a litany of ingredients, which includes liver, spinach, crispy pork rinds, crushed chillies, a meatball, bits of beef or pork, and, most importantly, blood. Don’t let that freak you out, though. SF Weekly claims it’s the reason the soup is so good, saying “it…adds an extra dusky layer of complexity to the broth, like pho on steroids.” Then comes a choice of noodles, which can include anything from the crispy kind to the soft variety. The result is a tangy, spicy, and balanced creation that impresses most who venture to try it.