The Rice is Right
It’s fun to share at Pasadena’s Rice Thai Tapas
By Erica Wayne 06/18/2014
Let’s start by specifying that almost every Thai or Chinese restaurant in town serves family-style portions to divvy up for the entire table. If there are four or more in your party, this means you can get a fair number of dishes and a pretty good variety without too much haggling among friends and family.
But let’s say there are only two or three of you. You want kung pao or pad prik king extra spicy. But your friend has a sensitive tongue and doesn’t eat meat. She likes egg rolls, but you’re off fried food. The negotiations can get pretty hairy and soon you’re sorry you didn’t just go to Souplantation or IHOP.
For Chinese meals, one solution is dim sum — oriental tapas where, at the right restaurant (we usually wind up at Ocean Star in Monterey Park) you can gorge yourselves on 10 or more small plates of dumplings, tarts, noodles and veggies etc. and still wind up with a bill of less than $30 for you and a couple of friends.
When it comes to Thai food, however, until recently only one restaurant in Pasadena — Saladang Song — specialized in small portions of shareable food. Song’s been a long-time favorite of ours, especially when we’ve wanted to take Asian food junkies to a place where the menu wasn’t simply a duplicate of almost every Thai place they’d ever been to.
About a year ago Song got a rival when Rice Thai Tapas opened in the mini-mall at the northwest corner of Marengo Avenue and Glenarm Street that houses Oba (a Japanese tapas-style restaurant), taking over the space that was originally Derek’s Bistro and then, briefly, The Still Room. Rice’s décor is a far stretch from the oh-so-elegant Derek’s, nor can it compare with Song’s dramatic interior. To be honest, the peppermint pink, chocolate brown and cream color scheme reminds me of nothing so much as Easter candy. But the food …
Rice’s menu has close to 60 items on it, about half designated as tapas. Prices for these items range from $3.50 for edamame sautéed in garlic sauce and $4.50 for tao-hu tod (crispy fried tofu with house sauce) to $9.50 for bone-in trout marinated in green and chipotle chili and $9.75 for tra-kite lamb marinated in lemongrass paste and served with a spicy chili lime sauce. These are outliers, however. The average price for most tapas is $5 to $7, with enough in each for three to easily share.
At lunch the other day, two friends and I chose Thai salsa ($6.25), ob woonsein ($7.25), sea bass manow ($7) and three flavor calamari ($6.25). We also ordered tra-kite salmon (which as a tapa costs $6.75 but as a lunch special with salad, taro/veggie eggroll and white rice is $9). To top off our meal, we asked for multi-brown rice ($2.75) and kamin rice (with curry powder, crispy shallots and pickled cucumber — $3).
The Thai salsa was fiery — gorgeously presented in a tri-part rectangular dish, the sweet, spicy ground chicken in a stellar sauce with bits of tomato and lots and lots of chili. In the two side compartments were cucumbers and carrots and crispy rice squares for dipping. Believe me, if you like hot food, this is a not-to-be-missed item. Ditto for the milder ob woonsein — vermicelli sautéed with lots of ginger, two kinds of mushrooms (enoki and shiitake) and a delicious house sauce. The rice noodles were topped with two grilled prawns — the only item that one of us (me) had to forgo. Not a problem. I was quite entranced enough with the gingery pasta. The shrimp were merely garnish. But the sprinkling of bright orange masago (smelt roe) added both color and the tangy flavor of the sea.
Our two fish dishes were presented in completely different compositions. The sea bass came in four distinct pieces, each perched perkily on a slice of lemon with micro-green garnish. The salmon was skewered, three small bites on each of three bamboo sticks, with a fourth skewer threaded with pieces of roasted yellow pepper, eggplant, carrot and tomato. Both got thumbs-up all around.
So did the overflowing basket of calamari filled with chewy tempura-fried rings and crispy chips, although none of us could figure out why the recipe was labeled “three flavor.” No matter, we finished off the entire bowl without trouble, along with the two specialty rices (the white rice paled in comparison) plus the side salad (spring greens, crispy rice, cherry tomato and a luscious peanut dressing) and eggroll that accompanied our salmon lunch.
But wait (as they say on TV), there’s more! We couldn’t leave without trying one of Rice’s tempting desserts which include pandan crème brulee ($4.25) and coconut ice cream with sticky rice ($3). I especially wanted to sample the forbidden sticky rice and mango ($4.50). Like our sea bass, the small dark brown rice cakes were set separately on a long rectangular white ceramic plate, each topped with a fan of mango slices and a bath of creamy sauce. Forbidden rice is getting lots of press lately for its health benefits, but had it been merely empty calories, it still would have been (and was) a wonderful finale.
We hardly made a dent in Rice’s tapas offerings. Even with three fairly flexible eaters, we did have one who preferred to stay away from pork, nixing katiem spareribs in garlic sauce ($6.75) and homemade crispy pork with red onion in “yum-yum” dressing ($6.75), and another who’s so-so on beef, vetoing sate mignon ($6.50) and crying tiger (filet with Thai chipotle — $6.50).
Also, since it was a daytime meal, cocktails (Rice has a full bar) were a no-go, despite the obvious allure of some premium sakes ($17 a bottle) or mango and pomegranate mojitos and a lychee martini (all $8, but much cheaper during Rice’s happy hours). Plain iced tea ($1.75) and Thai iced tea and coffee ($2 apiece) had to suffice, along with a promise of a quick return for an evening visit.
181 E. Glenarm St., #105
Full bar/Major cards