In a town filled with dozens of decent Thai restaurants, E-San Thai on Southwest 2nd Avenue continues to draw a loyal crowd of downtown eaters. The restaurant's take on Thai isn't the most inventive or dashing, but its reliably tasty, affordable food is peppered with just enough surprises to make it stand out, like coconut juice served in the shell, fried rice cradled in a hollowed-out pineapple half--and servers who, despite being young and cute, aren't surly.
Now E-San has transferred its format intact to a new branch on sleepy Northwest Thurman Street, four blocks west of busy 23rd Avenue, in the former home of Ricardo Segura's recently departed tapas restaurant, Tapeo. Foodwise, E-San's owners have simply added a new address to the front of the old menu, with its encyclopedic offerings of noodles, curries and specialty dishes.
Among the familiar sweet-spicy satays (prawns, chicken, beef or pork, $6-$7) and garden rolls (rice-paper packets of shredded lettuce and carrot with tofu and rice noodles, $3.50), the Thai fish cake is a notable house specialty. The dense-and-chewy patty of flaked fish ($6) is seasoned with little else besides the cooking oil, the mild sweetness of the fish complemented by the vinegary cucumber dipping sauce.
E-San's rendition of the traditional Thai salad Larb ($8.50) is a mélange of shredded protein (ground beef, chicken, pork or tofu) marinated with mint leaves, strands of lemongrass, lime juice and chili. The meat is crumbled into small pieces, so the salad appears as a uniform, grayish heap that belies the refreshingly tart flavor of the mix of citrus and herbs.
Noodles are the star attraction of the menu, with a half-dozen "pads" to choose from, most made of the broad, flat rice noodles that offer satisfying bite and gummy texture. Pad Kee Mao ($7.95-$14, depending on the choice of protein), with its mix of chopped bell pepper and broccoli, garlic, basil and chili, is like a rich noodle stroganoff, the brownish sauce achieving a mild, gravylike flavor and texture. The lighter Pad Gai ($7.95-$14) stir-fries the pasta with fresh lettuce, egg and onion, the lettuce wilting ever so slightly to summon its light perfume while still providing a little crunch, and then pan-glazed onions serve as a savory low note.
Diners can choose mild, medium or hot versions of most dishes, but compared to the palate-scorching spiciness scale at, say, Lemongrass or Khun Pic, medium here is more a flicker than a flame. Likewise, E-San's curries ($7.95-$14) are stalwart but standard.
Gang Kiew Wan, the green curry, has the usual coconut-milk base and is filled with bell pepper, bamboo shoots, basil and chewy slices of Thai eggplant. Amid the mellow soupiness, you might wish for the contrast of crisp blanched carrot or the flavorful zing of a tart raw tomato. The most richly textured curry is the Gang Garee, with firm pieces of potato, carrot, zucchini and pepper that create a more varied backdrop for the yellow curry paste and coconut broth.
The specialty entrees are a bit more adventurous, but adventure doesn't seem to be the restaurant's strongest food suit. The Thai sausage ($9), which the waiter described simply as "pork," arrives as a pile of glistening, diagonally sliced sections on a bed of lettuce. Although the flavor was good--salty with a subtle spark of chili and ginger--the sausage was oily and even gristly.
Fried whole-fish dishes--including crispy trout ($10), pomfret in the Pla Tod Lad Prik ($13) and Pla Priew Wan ($13), and catfish in the curried Pla Duk Pad Phet ($13) are strictly for the steel-bellied gastronaut. The fish arrives dry and stiff on the plate, and the flavor can't be revived even with dousings of garlicky sauces, chili and vegetables.
Overall, E-San serves stick-to-your-ribs, sturdy food, but the new Northwest location doesn't offer the bustling charm of the downtown spot. On a recent Friday night on Thurman Street, there was one lone diner in the big-windowed restaurant, and the room smelled more like dishwasher steam than stir-fry. Once spring comes and sidewalk tables scent the sleepy street with aromas of chili and garlic, maybe the place will draw flocks of neighbors. For now, both the quality of the food and the atmosphere are too quiet to provide enough of a draw.
2764 NW Thurman St., 226-0409.11 am-3 pm and 5-9 pm Sunday-Thursday, 11 am-3 pm and 5-10 pm Friday-Saturday. No checks. $-$$ Inexpensive-Moderate.
Larb, Pad Kee Mao