Alex Thao has a lot of responsibility for a man his age. He is the owner and operator of Celadon Royalty Thai Restaurant. He is a junior in college, studying computer science. He is only 20 years old. Why does he do so much? First, he wants a good education. Then he added, "I love fine dining and I became determined to be able to offer to the public excellent Thai food at moderate prices."
Thao grew up in the restaurant business. His father started Celadon Restaurant at its original location on Fifth Avenue. But, two years ago, when a former restaurant on University Avenue went out of business, Thao took advantage of the opportunity to move Celadon to a more visible location, and then took over the reins of ownership and management. His father now seldom comes to the restaurant. Despite the pressure of the job, Thao seems to be thriving. His eyes glow with excitement as he discusses his menu development and his plans for growth.
Thai people love to eat and have made food part of their interactive rituals. When meeting each other, the usual social greeting is, "Where are you going?" That is often followed quickly with, "Have you eaten already?"
Thai food has become very popular with health-conscious American customers. Its hallmark characteristic is lightness and freshness. Thailand is a lush country, with a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. Historically, it also had ample wood for fire so its cuisine emphasized cooking and grilling. Dips were created to add flavor to grilled meats and fish with sweet and sour tastes. Salad dressings usually contain little or no fat. They are made with juices, chili, garlic, shallots and other ingredients blended creatively for flavor. Soups and curries long have been staples of the Thai diet. In the 16th century, Chinese influences brought in the use of coconut milk, noodles and stir-fry techniques. Harmony and combinations of tastes are important in Thai cuisine. The taste of a dish actually may change from sour to sweet or salty as it lingers on the palate. Some people think that Thai food even has therapeutic benefits, made with fragrant herbs and spices.
The chef at Celadon Royalty Thai, Master Chef Songsri Thammasuckdi, trained at the Culinary Institute of Thailand and was later chef to the Queen and Princess of Thailand. She is well-versed in many traditional Thai styles of food preparation. Thao, however, is trying carefully to achieve a sophisticated "Bangkok" taste that caters to American flavor concepts, within the boundaries of traditional Thai cooking. "I grew up here in San Diego so I am sensitive to what my friends and neighbors would like," he said.
Thao greets guests with his broad smile and seats them at comfortable tables or booths, in a romantically lit room that is decorated with traditional Thai artifacts. "Elephants symbolize peace and tranquility," he informed me. There are many elephant images on the walls, along with those of Buddha. A large gold-looking panel reflects the steep slopes of Thai building roofs, slippery edges from which all evil falls off.
The menu is one of the most extensive I've seen in Thai restaurants, with numerous selections of appetizers, salads, entrees and specialties. One of the signature appetizers are Golden Shrimp, marinated and wrapped in crispy noodles before being fried to perfection. Three dipping sauces accompany this dish, in increasing intensity of heat -- hot to hotter to WOW! The combination of tasty shrimp with the noodles is simply mouthwatering. Another delicious shrimp dish is Grilled Shrimp, served on skewers, savory chunks that come with their own dipping sauce. Satay, marinated chicken or beef, also served on skewers, comes with a very popular peanut sauce.
I passed on the wonderfully sounding soups, made with ingredients like lemon grass and chicken or beef, in favor of Yum Nua, grilled steak sliced into thin pieces mixed with lettuce, tomato, cucumber onions, chili and lime sauce. It was "yummy!"
My entr?e selection was Larb Pla, a fresh whole striped bass deep-fried. The fish was topped with green mangos, red onions, scallions, rice, mint and chili lime juice. The combination of tastes was superb, sweetness from the fruit, sharpness from the onions and crispness of the skin. My companion's duck dish also had a crispy skin that he could not get enough of.
Other entrees include chicken, pork and beef served in combination dishes with garlic, bell pepper, eggplant, cashew and selections of curry. For non-meat eaters, tofu and mock duck are offered. Specialties include large prawns topped with a mild coconut sauce and lemon grass beef stir-fried with garlic.
Each dish out of the kitchen is marvelously arranged to be pleasing to the eyes, as well as the palate, filled with great flavors and aromas.
Dinner was topped off with a tapioca dish, served in a seeming martini glass, that gave a sweet rounding out to a wonderful evening.
For all the quality of food, service and ambiance, our bill was surprisingly moderate. My companion, who had never eaten there before, could hardly wait to return.
Celadon Royalty Thai is conveniently located in Hillcrest at 540 University Ave. Reservations are recommended. There is usually ample street parking available. Call (619) 297-8424 for information and reservations.
Rottenberg is editor of Dining San Diego Magazine and member of the California Restaurant Writers Association.