PICTURED: Sizzling rice with fried tofu, vegetables and cashews in a rich peanut sauce. Photo by Leslie Westbrook

by Leslie Westbrook

Exotic Thai
849 E. Ojai Ave., Ojai

It was a somber Saturday in Ojai. I’d attended a memorial for an old friend and was meeting another friend after that celebration of life to toast a different mutual friend who had recently passed away, way too young. Comforting Thai food seemed like a good choice for a late lunch — so we met in town to converse and reminisce.

My friend Rick, who lives in Ojai, drove right past Exotic Thai — and I almost did, too. Tucked back off the main drag, sheltered by trees and located just a few blocks east of bustling downtown Ojai, it’s easy to miss. But Exotic Thai has been providing tasty Thai food in the valley for a decade.

On a January Saturday afternoon, it was warm enough to dine outside under the covered patio that faces Ojai Avenue with a lovely view of the Topatopa Mountains. Despite weekend traffic buzzing by, two gals rode by on horseback during our meal that day. The inside of the contemporary, tastefully decorated space has the feeling of an aquarium or terrarium and looked very inviting for a future visit, but why not dine outside when the weather is agreeable?

Daily specials were posted on an outside billboard, but our waiter was happy to recite them while taking our order. We’d just missed the lunch specials (it was after 2 pm), so we ordered generously off the regular menu. The menu featured typical Thai offerings, from yum yai, larb and satay starters to a range of noodle dishes, curries and soups. We started our meal with perfect steamed dumplings — soft pillows stuffed with chicken and veggies and a wee crunchy topping, served with a house-made dipping sauce.

Steamed dumplings. Photo by Leslie Westbrook

Instead of going my usual route, spicy basil noodles, we took the waiter’s recommendation to try the sizzling rice and ordered it with fried tofu. It arrived sizzling (loud and hot) and the fresh veggies were swimming in a peanut sauce with cashews. We also chose the fresh garlic green beans — a special that day. The bright pile of fresh, crunchy greens were so tasty that I didn’t want to share the take-home portion (but did). I was more generous with the equally flavorful barbecue pork ribs — the very meaty, flavorful portions are more than enough to share with several friends or family.

We washed it all down with a shared Singha beer (wine and beer served here) and were so full we neglected to ask about desserts. Turns out that our eyes were way bigger than our stomachs — which meant that there was plenty leftover for each of us to take home.

For the record, lunch specials (offered only on weekdays) include a choice of one of the following: pad thai noodles, stir fried mixed vegetables, karee gai (chicken curry) or green salad with ginger or peanut dressing. My guess is that locals probably show up regularly and know the additional daily specials like Monday’s BBQ chicken, garlic beef or cashew nut chicken, or that pepper steak is available on Wednesdays. All of it is served with rice for a reasonable $9.

The patio at Exotic Thai in Ojai. Photo by Leslie Westbrook

Exotic Thai delivers for those who live in and around Ojai. The restaurant is owned by the same woman who recently opened Live to Eat across the street (recently reviewed here and how I learned about Exotic Thai!) which has fantastic desserts, so if you still have room, just pop across Ojai Avenue and get your sweet tooth on!

I’m not sure how I missed Exotic Thai all these years, and Rick said he didn’t know why he and his family hadn’t been here, either. But now the restaurant has two new fans to join the legions of locals who give many thumbs up to this cozy and delicious lunch and dinner spot —and I have a new “go to” for affordable lunch specials in Shangri-La at a spot that now holds new meaning: The place where we remembered our friends.