By Frank Sabatini Jr.
Predictability is what I’ve come to expect from San Diego’s myriad Thai restaurants, mainly because I succumb repeatedly to the pedestrian standbys: Tom yum soup, the colored curries, drunken noodles, and the most heart-stealing of them all — pad Thai noodles stir-fried in sweet tamarind sauce. At Lotus Thai, however, I happily left my comfort zone.
Lotus currently ranks as Downtown’s oldest Thai restaurant in the wake of closures by Rama and Royal Thai Cuisine over the past several years. It opened 12 years ago as a statelier offshoot to its original Hillcrest location, which has remained in business since 1999.
Here, owner Ton Sangkapong partnered with Taiwan native, Brice Lin, who added to the menu a small selection of dim sum that includes steamy Chinese dumplings filled with various proteins — an unexpected find in Thai restaurants.
Those encasing little orbs of ground pork, onions and ginger were supple and deliciously straightforward. Yet the vegetable dumplings my herbivore companion chose were exceedingly more interesting, offering the essence of clove or five-spice or star anise. We couldn’t determine exactly. But whatever the additive, it provided a scintillating lift to the finely minced carrots, cabbage, spinach and tofu inside.
In resisting my go-to Thai favorites throughout the meal, I made an exception by ordering a green papaya salad. Though cool and crisp, it fell short on the lime-juice dressing I so love. Also, since I hadn’t specified a spice level, it came free of hot chilies by default. I added a desired sting with nam pla, the versatile table condiment containing lime, bird’s eye chilies, garlic and fish sauce, which we applied also to a plate of chilled heaven rolls stuffed with fresh, julienne veggies and served with peanut-studded vinaigrette.
Unique to Lotus’ East Village menu are a couple of sea bass dishes, one drizzled in pesto-lime sauce and the other accented with white wine and low-sodium soy sauce. There is also orange curry tenderloin with fresh pumpkin, and “flaming pork,” which goes down as my favorite pork dish of the year so far.
The plate featured two barely seasoned filets shaped mysteriously into perfect rectangles and sporting zebra stripes from the grill. Served piggybacked over charred pineapple, the meat tasted both fruity and semi smoky while maintaining the comforting savor of thin pork chops.
The bottom slab was particularly noteworthy because it picked up more of the juices from the pineapple right beneath as the sweat from the top filet seeped into it. Served alongside was an addicting dipping sauce of lemon juice, vinegar, chilies, sugar and fresh garlic. The dish also came with rice, which I largely ignored while plowing uncontrollably through the meat and fruit.
The puffy cubes of seared tofu my companion chose in a veggie stir fry called “tender greens” escaped blandness because of peppery black bean sauce lacing the dish. I was more impressed by the mock meat he chose as the protein for lard nar, a noodle dish covered with broccoli and carrots, and bathed in a vegetarian brown sauce resembling beef gravy. The “meat” conveyed a rich texture that reminded me of faux duck.
Most menu items, we were told, can be made gluten-free or vegan.
Elegance pervades throughout the roomy restaurant, which features high-back chairs custom-made in heavy wood, plus detailed globe lights, a rustic-roofed bar, and tall windows framed softly in wispy draperies.
The wine list is focused and eclectic, with other booze offerings extending to sake, soju cocktails, and Asian and local craft beers.
Lunch and dinner are served daily, with price specials on nearly 20 different dishes available from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekdays.
—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.