Traditional Thai food vs. American Thai food

Can You Find Traditional Thai Food in America?

Americans are eating more Thai food than ever before. Thai restaurants are popping up in cities large and small, and Thai ingredients can be found in suburban supermarkets.

But can Thai food that’s cooked in America, by or for Americans, be the same – or even as good – as Thai food cooked by Thais in Thailand?

For many reasons, the answer is no. And in some cases, it has nothing at all to do with the food or the ingredients.

Eating Thai is a Community Experience

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Let’s start with the social aspects of eating. Whether at home or in a restaurant, Americans generally eat their meals in a more or less solitary setting. In restaurants, they eat at tables that are either feet away from their closest dining companions or in booths that put up literal barriers between them and those at the booths on either side. In Thailand, diners tend to eat at long tables, sitting elbow-to-elbow with people who may have been strangers at the start of the meal but are conversation buddies by the time it’s finished.

Even if they’re eating at home, Thais tend to share mealtimes, if not homes, with multiple generations of extended family. Children often sit on an aunt or grandmother’s lap rather than in their own seats. American families often eat in shifts, with children eating an earlier (and often different meal) than their parents.

Healthy Thai Food

OK, so this has a little to do with ingredients, but not necessarily how they affect the flavor or texture of a dish.

Diners who are familiar with Thai food made in Thailand often do not recognize Thai food served in America. Among other things, they cannot find any of the health benefits of truly authentic Thai food.

American portion sizes, especially of meat and poultry, are huge compared to what you would be served in Thailand. Servings of rice in the U.S. are typically much smaller. Thais believe, and most scientific research would probably bear this out, that a larger serving of rice and smaller serving of meat is a much better choice, health-wise.

The absence of traditional Thai herbs and seasonings is another issue, but not necessarily because of the effect on the flavor of the food (though this is an issue we’ll get into later). Pungent, tasty herbs such as Thai sweet basil, hot peppers and more, extend healing properties to the dish that are not found in the “wimpy” flavorings that most American taste buds are familiar with.

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American Thai Food: Can You Taste It Now?

Those who are accustomed to eating Thai food in Thailand say the main difference in American-created Thai food is the lack of the complex melding of flavors around which Thai cuisine is built.

Thai food is meant to be a combination of sweet, salty, hot, creamy and sour flavors. But American palates prefer foods that are highly sweet or salty, so chefs and owners of American Thai restaurants cater to their clientele by de-emphasizing or eliminating the other three flavors.

For example, those who have eaten Thai food in Thailand say the “spicy” option in America is often milder than the “mild” option in Thailand. That’s because American diners are not familiar with spiced foods. The same with sour flavors, they say.

A good example of this is the way dishes featuring Thai sweet basil are prepared. In Thailand, dishes that use this herb are packed with it. But in the U.S., the dish is predominantly meat or chicken, with vegetables and either noodles or rice, with a sprinkling of herbs that may or may not be actual Thai sweet basil.

Thai sweet basil is different from the green basil normally seen at the grocer’s or farm stand. And it has nothing at all in common with the dried and crushed leaves that come in jars.

Thai sweet basil is a purple-stemmed plant whose leaves are much sturdier than the green Italian basil normally purchased in the U.S. Its flavor is stronger, with hints not only of licorice but also of cinnamon and mint.

Other flavor differences are chalked up to the unavailability or unwillingness to use the freshest ingredients. In Thailand, chefs visit farmers markets daily. They are plentiful, inexpensive and open from early morning through late evening. Very busy cooks, such as those who run open-air food carts, might visit the farmers market twice in a day as they run out of certain ingredients.

In the U.S. farmers markets occur once a week and are limited to larger cities. Usually the products available there are more expensive than in grocery stores or through restaurant supply houses that deliver food on a weekly basis. Many main ingredients, both meats and vegetables, are frozen rather than fresh to comply with government regulations on freshness and safety. The result is a different quality to the ingredients and of course with the lesser quality, comes the lesser taste.

Thai Restaurant Scene in the Bay Area, California

San Francisco has always been a city that celebrates its food and its restaurants, and it is home to some of the best eateries on the planet.

Millions of people flock to San Francisco from all over the world each and every year just for the opportunity to eat at some of these specialty restaurants. And while many of them come for the sourdough bread (the only place you’ll be able to find sourdough bread that tastes just like this) or the sushi and authentic Asian food, many of them are starting to find out about the incredible Thai restaurant scene that is exploding all throughout the Bay Area.

Thai restaurants have always been pretty popular in California, but they used to be relegated to smaller eateries, café style places, and food trucks/carts. Most of the Thai food served in San Francisco was street vendor fare, and though it was delicious, there weren’t all that many established Thai restaurants in the Bay Area up until just a few short years ago.

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Today, however, Thai restaurants are absolutely exploding in popularity, with a dozen or more popping up each and every year. Though it is likely that Thai food will never overtake authentic Asian/Chinese food, sushi, or specialty craft food as the heartbeat of the San Francisco restaurant scene, it’s definitely giving those specialties a run for their money right now!

If you are thinking about visiting the City by the Bay and want to enjoy some of these specialty meals at the best high restaurants in the city, you’re going to want to check out some of the hotspot locations we break down for you below!

Amphawa Thai

For one reason or another, the overwhelming majority of Thai restaurants in the Bay Area all look like carbon copies of one another.

You aren’t going to have that problem when you come to Amphawa Thai.

Quiet, unassuming, and almost “invisible” as far as decor and design is concerned, this just kind of looks like a restaurant – and unassuming, friendly, open and inviting restaurant that you might have in your home town – that just happens to serve some of the best Thai food in the Bay Area. You’ll want to try out the Angel Wings, any of their stir-fry plates, and especially the yum pla muk.

Trust us, if there’s only one type of authentic Thai restaurant that you’re going to visit in San Francisco, it has to be this one!

Arun Thai

A smaller restaurant and definitely one of the more upscale locations offering authentic Thai food with a bit of a twist, this just might be the most famous Thai restaurant in the United States and one of the destination locations that help set off the Thai restaurant revolution in the city of San Francisco.

With absolutely no affiliation with the restaurant of the same name in Chicago, the San Francisco Arun Thai location is as special a place to eat Thai food as you’re going to find. All of the meals here are 100% authentic, prepared by individuals that have either lived in Thailand or studied under someone that has, and all of them have elite level culinary experience and skills that help them elevate the freshest ingredients available in the United States to something really, really special.

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On top of that, Arun (the owner) used to be a sommelier with the Mandarin Oriental in San Fran, which means that the wine list here is top-notch and will be perfectly paired with whatever it is you decide to eat when you visit this restaurant.

If you are looking for a very interesting and memorable experience, want to taste some of the best Thai food in the city (and maybe even the United States) and aren’t afraid to open up your wallet a little bit, you’ll need to make sure that you have reservations to Arun Thai.

Hint – try the “drunken noodles”. You won’t regret it!

Benjarong Thai Cuisine

As close to a “takeout Thai” location as you’re going to find that actually offers authentic and incredibly delicious Thai food, you’ll want to try and visit the Benjarong Thai Cuisine restaurant if you’re looking to grab a quick bite to eat on the fly and don’t want to spend a lot more than $10 and meal.

Everything about this location is pretty simple, straightforward, and open, and though they have a bar most regulars know that you should go into eating here with a “grab and go” kind of mentality. This is the kind of Thai food that tastes even better a day after you leave it in the refrigerator!