Rama Thai

(San Diego, CA) — After a long day on the San Diego trolley tour, we had our fill of “cheese” and looked to something different for our Saturday night dinner. Only a couple blocks from our hotel in the Gaslamp district is RAMA, a fine dining Thai restaurant that had earned several “best of” accolades in the area. Visions of crispy red snapper and spicy sauces spring to mind as we ambulate to the restaurant on another mild evening...

He Fed:

I’m excited. It’s been awhile since I’ve had Thai food, and I’m hungry for it tonight. Outside, it looks like just another Asian restaurant on a street that could easily have been a strip mall. Once inside, there’s a long, dark hallway leading into the dining room. The hostess finds our reservation, and after an awkward few moments of fumbling (and a terse whisper from the manager), she leads us back to our table. Curtains of gauzy material are hung from the high ceiling, acting as partitions between tables, like temporary walls. It’s kind of cool and gives the space a unique, airy and ephemeral vibe. We are seated next to the back wall, which is a trickling waterfall with a statue. Very Zen...until we discover, much later, some of the water splashes onto our table occasionally. That can’t be hygienic, right?

The waiter arrives. After some patter, we discover he is yet another Michigan transplant! He is friendly and funny, though we can tell he’s under orders to keep our meal on schedule. I get the feeling the management here runs the restaurant with an iron fist, and turning tables quickly takes precedence to jaw-jacking with customers. Nevertheless, he commends my choice of beer: a big bottle of Ballast Wahoo Wheat. We also start with sparkling water, knowing full well the meal will be spicy.

Crispy spring rolls act as our appetizer as we scour the menu. The rolls are as good as they get...soft and hot interior of cabbage, carrot, and ground up meat, dipped in a spicy sweet sauce. It’s weird they use a doily in the cup to deliver the rolls, instead of a lettuce leaf, though. I think it’s meant to look fancy, but instead seems out of place, almost extravagant.

For my main dish, I gravitate instantly to the Massaman Curry with roasted peanuts, carrots, and potatoes. Ever since trying Massaman years ago, I’ve been addicted. I just love the nutty, spicy, earthy sauce and chunks of vegetable. Since I’m feeling sinful tonight, I get the roast duck add-on. It is delivered in a small cauldron, bits of meat and carrot bobbing up and down in the orange broth. I spoon some fried rice onto my plate, then slop Massaman onto that before digging in. It is damn good curry. Thankfully, I’d selected medium heat; much more and I would have been crying. As it is, I get the occasional unseeded jalapeno ring but that’s fine. My beer takes care of the sting. My only complaint is the duck is a little rubbery. Otherwise, the taste is exactly as I’d hoped.

Juliet is having a tougher time with her fish, which is way above her threshold for spice (despite ordering medium like me). My one test bite confirms that it is very hot, and probably authentic for the dish. Eventually, we’ve eaten our fill and settle the bill before toddling out to walk off the meal. RAMA definitely delivers what I would consider true Thai food (never having been to Thailand, of course) and scratched that itch for me. If we ever get back, we’ll bring a larger group of friends so we can try bites of the other dishes.
She Fed:

I love Thai food. A few years back, I held a series of educational forums for kitchen designers at our corporate training center and part of the curriculum involved getting them into the kitchen cooking on our appliances. We created a massive Thai luncheon with Tom Yum soup, pork lettuce wraps, cucumber salad, curried prawns, beef satay, and gingered rice. I held 12+ trainings one quarter and never once tired of that menu. To this day, when those Thai aromatics hit my nose, I think back to all the great times we had with each group in our kitchens.

The front of Rama has a queue of 20-somethings dressed for a nightclub, but when we tell the gal guarding the door we’ve got dinner reservations she leads us down a long, dim hallway. We’re seated right by a scenic waterfall, which adds to the mood.

Our waiter is very friendly and happens to be from Michigan, too. I’m in the mood for something different so I order the King Rama Martini with sake and Belvedere. Turns out I read the menu wrong and it’s just a super dry vodka martini (don’t ask how I read “vermouth” as “sake”). Fine by me, but it’s all I need for the night and I stick with ice water for most of the meal.

We start with an order of the Crispy Spring Rolls, which are beautifully presented but paired with a mediocre sweet and sour sauce. Nothing you couldn’t get from any Chinese buffet and I’m not sure what makes them Thai.

Being a nutcase for Tom Yum soup, I also ordered a cup of the Tom Kha (essentially Tom Yum soup but with chicken). Mushrooms, tomatoes, broccoli, and shreds of white meat chicken float in a creamy coconut milk broth deeply scented by kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass. I think I could devour the entire soup pot back in the kitchen.

Instead, I order a dish I’ve never had, to broaden my Thai horizons. I order the Mahi Mahi Larb Style, sauteed fish under a bed of cold salad. Our affable server gives me the choice of mild, medium, medium hot or Thai hot. I go for medium, which turns out to be “hotter than the hubs of hell” as my grandmother used to say. The fish is mild and perfectly cooked, but the salad with greens, fresh mint, and loads of pungent red onion is heavily dressed in a very spicy sauce. It’s phenomenal and I want to gobble it all up, but my lips are on fire. My martini doesn’t help douse the flames! I eat the shredded carrots, cabbage leaves, and cucumber slices garnishing the dish but cannot even eat half of the larb. I should have gone mild.

The waterfall splashes water on our table from time to time and a DJ begins spinning tunes which seems a little odd to me. (When did I get to be so stodgy?) I think Jeremy wants to stay for a round of drinks or maybe hit a bar on the way to the hotel, but I’m just thinking about brushing my teeth (twice) and chugging a big bottle of water from the minibar.

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