White Sand Thai Barbecue and Bar
394 E. Main St.
Most dishes $10 or less

There seems to be an abundance of the word “fusion” in contemporary cuisine descriptions these days. Whether young chefs are blending cooking styles and ingredients or mixing countries of origin, this new trend is offering diners a number of interesting options in dining choices. Now in downtown Ventura is the latest entry in the Thai fusion style: White Sand Thai Barbecue and Bar.

Owner/chef Manatsaya “Ooi” Stillman has brought simple recipes from her native Thailand and mixed their essences with a sprinkling of Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese and fresh Ventura County produce (particularly opal basil and mint) to create a very straightforward and reasonably priced menu for her patrons. You can begin with either a spring roll or California roll (either is just $5), or opt for one of the soups and/or salads. I found the spring rolls tasty and crispy, but not particularly interesting, despite the delicious and sweet garlicky nutty sauce.

I prefer the tom kha gai soup, served in a large enough bowl to provide a good-size starter portion for four diners.

This soup has an interesting spicy flavor, redolent of lemon grass and nutmeg (or mace), and the slightly bitter jicama-like flavor of the galanka root adds a unique essence to the overall combination. Also available is a tom yum kung soup (spicy and sour with shrimp and lots of mushrooms). This soup is good, but not as interesting and inventive as the tom kha gai.

A very delicious salad option is the rice noodles mint salad, which combines crispy white rice noodles, mixed greens, mint, cilantro and basil (the ka-phrao basil or holy basil) with a sweet and sour dressing. Theoretically it also has tomatoes and cucumber, but the last time I was there those ingredients (and the cilantro) were missing. There was an abundance of fresh mint, however, which offered an interesting salad/greens alternative. The waiter was unaware of the missing ingredients; I might want to suggest to the chef that it is a good idea to have one’s wait staff conversant in the menu’s ingredients.

Before discussing the restaurant’s signature dishes, I will say the Thai barbecue, small grilled pork ribs with Thai ingredients (kaffir lime, ginger, garlic, cumin, chili) and served with sticky rice, is outstanding. The flavor of the juicy meat swirled together with the spices is truly memorable. Unfortunately, the thick ribs are cut fairly small, and there is not as much meat as I would like, but the taste certainly compensates for the meager size of the rib.

Besides the barbecue skewers of chicken, pork, beef, shrimp or tofu, the signature dishes are a varied group, both in design and flavor. My favorite dish is the very basil and garlic beef, which has those ingredients stir-fried in the White Sand sauce (which seems to be sweetened soy and oyster sauce with ginger, and cumin), and served with whatever vegetables the chef selected for that week. One night it was baby bok choy (delicious!), and another evening it was carrots and sprouts. The panang chicken is also good. (It is basically a coconut curry with chili paste and red and green pepper.) I’ve yet to try the shrimp basil eggplant, which looks wonderful in presentation.

For the noodles and rice section, White Sand offers a pad thai (quite tasty but not particularly unique in design or execution), a chow mein, a chicken fried rice, and the interesting White Sand fusion: flat noodles, ground pork, bok choy and tofu garnished with garlic, cilantro and sweetened soy sauce. This dish had a very good flavor but seemed to be swimming in the sauce. For extra spiciness, be sure to ask for the four covered pots filled with various herbs, spices and chilis. Those wishing to really spice up their dishes will be grateful for the additional flavorings.

White Sand is in a convenient location (it was formerly Deco and also Riviera Bistro) and seems to cater to the bar crowd that wants functional décor with crisp clean lines and simple, unadorned table settings. There is (of course) a television in the bar area, and an interesting video artwork installation of ocean scenes and fish, complementing warm but unobtrusive art on the walls. The small patio on the street is very comfortable for outside dining; it is easier there to hear more intimate conversation with one’s table companions.

I admire Chef Ooi’s menu and desire to provide a fresh alternative to Ventura’s Thai cuisine options. Her menu is small yet complete, and a reasonable option for those wanting a nouvelle experience, but on a limited budget. It is also refreshing to know that Thai food, which was once thought to be very exotic, is now able to merge into the newest culinary experience: Thai fusion.