Los Angeles hosts a handful of superlative Thai restaurants, and Little Saigon features dozens of compelling Vietnamese restaurants, so the idea of driving to the latter to eat the former didn’t quite compute. However, when Orange County eating maven Dave Lieberman (OC Weekly) suggested trying Thai Nakorn in Garden Grove, I wasn’t about to object. After all, since meeting Lieberman less than a year ago at Rio Brasil Café, he’s led me to a number of very good meals, but none better than Thai Nakorn.
Chef-owner Wanida Sreewarom opened her first Thai Nakorn in Buena Park and moved southeast to Garden Grove, where her bigger, better location promptly burned to the ground. She and her family opened a second location in Stanton, which is still going strong, but Lieberman stands by the Garden Grove flagship, which rose from the ashes about a year ago.
It’s a good thing the food was so good, since décor at the sprawling restaurant is kitschy, with several schools of reflective fish lining the walls. Thai Nakorn features a full bar and a jam-packed display case touting pastries and desserts made with ingredients like pandan and coconut. The only design element that stood out was a decorative wood panel that seemed to tell some kind of story, just like at Jitlada.
Lieberman said he must have eaten at Thai Nakorn 100 times, so we deferred to him for the ordering process, which led to a table full of his favorite dishes.
We mainly stuck with “Thai Nakorn Specials.” Only one of Lieberman’s selections qualified as truly healthy. Snap fresh Chinese water grass was sautéed with garlic and broth-y bean sauce, to good effect.
Crispy catfish salad worked out well, with crispy fried bits of fish, tangy strips of green mango, thin-shaved red onion, fresh cilantro leaves and punch from fried garlic.
Lieberman’s daughter is already a devoted fan of Thai Nakorn’s chicken satay, and since the skewers were on the table, they were worth trying. Thai Nakorn uses dark meat chicken, which was marinated, grilled and juicy, served with a thick peanut sauce and a sweet cucumber slaw.
Pad kee mao was another default dish, and it was also above average, featuring thin, oil-slicked rice noodles stir-fried with chilies, mint, and cuts of tofu the size of sugar cubes that soaked up the spicy oil. Of course none of the food was too spicy since we requested across-the-board “medium.” Of course “medium” seems to be determined on a sliding scale at Thai restaurants, so the “medium” noodles could easily be spicier next time. They could also just as easily involve pork instead of tofu.
The rest of the meal involved some heavy-hitter northern Thai dishes, including plump grilled pork sausage with taut skins and juicy cores. The accompaniments were first rate, including fresh-shaved ginger, peanuts, crunchy cabbage and a single lime wedge.
Lieberman said that every other time he’s ordered stuffed squid, they’d been drowned in a chile and mint gravy. This time, the pan-fried squid were stuffed with corks of pork forcemeat – as always – but this time, the crusty squid were tossed with clusters of caramelized garlic and pepper. The pungent flavor bombs worked in tandem with the pork to produce a scintillating plate of cephalopods. As if the dish wasn’t flavorful enough, the baby squid were sprinkled with more fried garlic.
Nam Sod featured finely ground pork tossed with crispy rice, scallions, dried Thai chilies and cuts of ginger. The “salad” was well balanced and well textured.
We finished our mammoth meal with a custard-filled coconut. Eat the hot, fluffy custard, then use a spoon to pry the coconut meat from the fibrous wall.