Beauty is as beauty does
The food is as delicious as it is attractive at Monrovia’s Chang Thai bistro
By Erica Wayne 05/21/2014
Pasadena certainly has its fair share of stellar Thai restaurants, including our longtime favorites, President Thai and Saladang. But standing around in their crowded doorways awaiting a table and trying to have some decent conversation amid the din of prime-time diners is no fun. So recently we decided to try another Thai place we’d heard of in Monrovia and were delighted with its comfort, quality of both food and service, and, just as much, its tranquility.
Chang (the word means elephant) Thai Bistro is run by the same folks who used to operate Chandra on South Arroyo Parkway in Pasadena, another of our favorites until it closed a couple of years back. Situated on the same lot as a motel, Chandra was never crowded but suffered from a presumption that it was primarily there to serve out-of-town visitors. Somehow, it always seemed a bit forlorn.
Chang, in the heart of Old Town Monrovia on Myrtle Avenue, has no such limitations. First of all, it’s drop-dead gorgeous with antique brick and sponge-painted walls in hues of mustard and light vermilion. The long rectangular dining area is flanked on both lateral walls by deep orange, tan and brown banquettes, with tables for four occupying the central space.
Furniture is of dark wood, as is the flooring. Chairs are comfortably upholstered in melon leatherette, matching the linen napkins (which form holders for the elegant chopsticks), and each lacquered tabletop sports a small decorative candle. The room ends at a small four-seat bar that spans most of the rear wall. Lighting is low, and soft jazz plays as backdrop.
Bamboo is a prime decorative element, including an immense and very impressive collection hanging just inside the entry door, long bamboo lighting fixtures depending from the two-story open-beam ceiling and a duo of huge bamboo-framed mirrors. Elephants also play a starring role in watercolors decorating the walls and even in the restaurant’s logo. The scripted word “Chang” with a happy pachyderm’s head, trunk raised, ascending from the middle letter “a.”
But as my old Granny used to say: “Beauty is as beauty does.” And Chang’s beauty isn’t just skin deep. Its lovely décor is easily matched by the food that comes from its kitchen. To start, our tam kah gai (chicken coconut soup, with mushrooms, carrots, galangal root, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves - $8.95) was served in an impressively flaming chimney cauldron. Larb (ground chicken cooked with lime juice, roasted rice powder, onions, cilantro, mint leaves and red pepper - $7.95) came cupped in three cabbage leaves, prettily garnished with baby lettuces and grated carrot.
Entrées (we ordered pad prik king with slabs of pork and fresh cut green beans sautéed in chili paste with chunks of red and green bell peppers and basil - $7.95, and a heavenly chicken panang in a rich coconut cream sauce - $7.95) were as attractive as they were delicious, served in geometric white ceramic dishes that showed off their colorful contents.
Our server graciously inquired as to our “heat” preference before taking our order. (The Chang scale is 1-5. We picked 4 and were pleased that the spicing hadn’t been dumbed down for presumed wimpy Anglo palates.) And, speaking of spicy, we also ordered spicy fried rice (mixed with mint, green chili, onion and pork - $7.95), a dish we always enjoyed at Chandra and were glad to see hasn’t mellowed an iota.
One of my favorite Chandra salads was “sexy catfish,” which, alas, hasn’t made it to the Monrovia location. But another catchy item, “naked shrimp” ($9.95), is described on Chang’s menu exactly like Chandra’s “naked killer” (“grilled shrimp tossed in a lime and chili dressing on a bed of fresh greens, topped with mint leaves, scallions and cilantro”) which was, if I recall correctly, pretty lethal. We haven’t tried it yet; but I hope, despite the name change, it retains its throat-searing qualities.
A couple of other provocative titles on Chang’s menu caught our eye and are on the to-try list for our next visit. Sweet sassy sole (crispy fried filet of sole garnished with aromatic crispy basil leaves and fresh chili sauce - $9.95) sounds wonderful; and we’re quite titillated by the appetizer called “threesome” ($7.95). Unfortunately, since its description says only “Don’t ask, just try it!” and we haven’t yet, I can’t enlighten you.
It’s not often that we have dessert at Thai restaurants. However, aside from the traditional sweet sticky rice with mango ($5.95) and the way too heavy but yummy-sounding F.B.I. (fried banana and Thai coconut ice cream - $6.95), we noticed Chang’s numerous homemade ice creams (Thai coconut, Thai tea, Thai coffee, green tea, vanilla) and sorbets (mango, lychee, strawberry, watermelon, zesty lemon, and orange) at $2.95 apiece. We couldn’t resist trying the coffee ice cream, an espresso so rich, dark and delectable it had us adding the 10 others to that next-time list.
There’s no doubt that Chang is head, shoulders and trunk above most other Thai restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley and, perhaps, all of the Los Angeles area. Their menu is huge, with enough interesting items to keep you (and us) returning on a regular basis. So next time you’re put off by the horrific wait at your favorite Pasadena Thai restaurant, think about heading east to Monrovia’s Chang. It’s definitely worth the trip.
Chang Thai Bistro
614 S. Myrtle Ave.,
Full bar/Major cards