Rice Thai Cuisine
387 E. Main St.
Rice is no stranger to any local Thai food fan in Ventura. Listed in the top three for Thai restaurants in every issue of the VCReporter’s annual “Best of Ventura County” edition since its opening in 2010, this quaint Main Street stalwart has only gained attention with each passing year, evidenced by the seemingly endless stream of takeout patrons walking in the door on a wet and blustery Monday evening in mid-September 2015.
Some of the décor and interior accouterments remain from the days when it was opened five years ago — uninterrupted avocado-green booths give way to wood two- and four-top tables that line each side of the slender dining house; wonderfully framed mirrors still adorn the west wall; tables are dressed with white plates and green apple chopsticks; an odd array of bubblegum pop plays from speakers (Christina Aguilera’s “Genie in a Bottle” welcomed us, later joined by a couple of Britney hits), the flat screen television showing LA evening news.
It was the new menu that brought us back on such a sultry summer night, though. Rumors of a new owner and new additions (not even updated on its website yet by deadline) in addition to its already proven options, plus the chalkboard of daily specials conjured images of fresh, unknown, punchy offerings and the feeling of sweat dripping from our brows.
Rice’s vegan fresh rolls received a bit of a new tang. The soft, transparent rice paper filled with Thai sweet basil, mixed greens and deep-fried tofu is now assisted by carrots, black sesame seeds and green apple slivers, still served with sweet-chili and perfect peanut dipping sauces. While not advertised, there was surely a mint leaf or two in each roll — just enough for a hint of mild flavor. The first couple of bites of each half had it all and were head-nodders, but they could have used just a bit more of everything tucked in for those all-lettuce endings.
The papaya salad, a longtime Rice staple, is a must-eat dish. Light, fragrant, crisp and always meticulously staged, the julienned green papaya mixed with tomatoes, raw green beans, roasted peanuts, and grilled shrimp amid lime juice and fish sauce does not disappoint. I did pause, noticing on the menu has it marked as spicy (a red chili icon next to it), yet the chilies were missing from our plate, although honestly weren’t missed.
Rice’s special curry was, admittedly, one classic dish we’d never tried before. The wife and I are generally more panang, pad prik king or pineapple curry people, generally uninterested in yellow curries (perhaps due to the usual potato inclusion). Here, however, no potato, no cry. The vibrant, smooth sauce of homemade herb curry paste with broccoli, carrots, red and green bell peppers, crushed peanuts and cashews in coconut milk was a fine representation of a dulcet, vegetarian Thai meal.
For the finale, we simply were not leaving without trying the all-new tamarind sauce entree on the menu’s wok section. Tamarind is just one of those misunderstood, mystical flavors — used in desserts, Mexican jugos, chutneys, marinades, as a meat tenderizer, and even as a secret extract in Worcestershire sauce, which is now finding its way into the world’s ever-advancing, chic vegetarian carte du jour. Tropical tamarind trees, grown aplenty in Southeast Asia, produce a sweet but tart, sometimes very sour fruit. Tamarind is potent, and a little of its pulp goes a long way.
At Rice Thai Cuisine, after querying, the chef shared the sauce recipe as a blend of tamarind, coconut, sugar and fish sauce. Hmmm. Without the faintest idea what we were getting ourselves into, we leapt. “Tamarind, with chicken, please.”
Purely on presentation, the tamarind deserves an applauding A grade. The execution, too, deserves top honors and still has me thinking about the savory and texture profiles. Exquisitely dressed with paper-fine, delicate, deep-fried basil leaves that melt in your mouth, the nuttiness of split cashews and whole peanuts below mix with an Oscar-worthy performance of chicken previously unfathomed — somehow wok-fried with the finest, sweet-salty candy crust around tender, white-meat chunks that you ever did crunch, almost Cracker Jack–esque — raised on a twisted nest of fried rice noodles. Feeling as if we’d be remiss not to draw forehead sweat at a Thai restaurant, we requested the tamarind “spicy.” Chef acquiesced, adding plenty of dried Thai chili peppers to the wok, giving the dish that bonus muay Thai reverse-roundhouse kick to knock it out properly. If Tim Burton were ever to don a toque blanche and cook a masterpiece, it would be this.