Our car's nearly 40 yards from the door, rolling out of the parking lot, when one of Sengchanh Thai's employees catches up and bangs on a back window, startling us all. No, not a post-meal carjacking — instead, the valiant returning of a purse left behind by a friend.
Now that's service. And two-month-old Sengchanh exceeds what one might expect inside the former House of Yakitori 7 space on North Academy Boulevard. White tablecloths, fresh flower vases and candles (even during daylight hours) follow suit. All this, with the average entrée price hovering around eight bucks.
As for the familiar curries, noodles and rice plates — given a tiny Laotian skew by chef Chantho Bouphaphanh, the aunt of owner Jessica Vongnarat — many are exemplary, while only a few require tweaking.
Addressing that small percentage of rocky dishes before focusing on the roaring ones, let's start with the most should-be-awesome dish anywhere, the pad Thai. It's got the look, including fresh garnish like cilantro and superfine carrot and cabbage shavings, plus a lime wedge and generous crumbled peanuts. The textures are spot-on, too, with perfectly moist noodles and juicy meats. But the tamarind in ours, ordered at a 3 on the restaurant's 1 through 5 heat index, is somehow out of balance with the scant sweetness and medium spice, creating an off-putting tinge of sourness and less-than-optimal wok hay (the "breath" of the cooking vessel) as the central flavor.
Also, my criticism of the "house special" Sengchanh Fried Rice, with (most notably) squid bits, shrimp curls, pineapple cubes and roasted peanuts, is that for all those inputs, it remains an understated dish with a pervading blandness. Not bad, but it reads from the menu much bigger than it tastes.
The gossamer rice noodle tangle on the otherwise colorful Pad Woon Sen plate — it bears carrots, tomatoes and Napa cabbage — displays a similar subtlety. But here the tables turn: It also has an elegance, almost equivalent to that of a beautiful, clear Chinese broth where base flavors surprise as they emanate from the translucence.
From a daily specials board, the Palam Chicken, not a far departure from Indonesia's Gado-gado, woos with a muddy, semisweet, dopamine-sparking peanut sauce over stalky steamed veggies and moist, fried chicken strips.
That same lovely sauce, plus a sticky sweet chili dip, accompanies the Thai sampler platter of non-greasy, crispy tofu triangles; excellent house egg rolls; hugely lemongrass-infused, spongy fish cakes; and more succulent chicken satay skewers.
Larb salad also makes for a good shared appetizer, the minced pork (or chicken) bursting with minty, citric, chili-onion essence pinched inside cabbage leaves. The outstanding papaya salad, too, sings with citrus notes, this time laced with chili-garlic punch — the spicy juice rendering the unripe fruit shavings into a jicama-like treat. Ordered at a searing Level 4 heat, it delivers the digestive smackdown.
In dishes where floral herbs and curries imbue coconut milk, both the green curry and Tom Kha Gai soups achieve the finest expressions of their respective ingredients. Extending from rhizome to foliage in the case of the Tom Kha Gai, kaffir lime leaf, lemongrass and galangal root flavors simply explode from the bowl, an initial velvety tartness fading to a thin residual sweetness across the palate. Picture the Doppler effect as a taste experience.
A fallen-Jenga-like mass of thin, rectangular bamboo shoots serves as sauce-soaking filler, and perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic, in the green curry — though typical eggplant and bell peppers lend their fiber, with ample basil leaves contributing a soulful scent and keystone flavor.
A short-grain brown rice option ($2; white rice is $1.50, and neither is included) is appreciated, though the sporadic use of MSG across the menu isn't, especially when one forgets to ask it be left out.
Artfully arranged plates spotlight the short dessert selection of either mango sticky rice ($4.50) or coconut or green tea ice cream (not house-made, but totally serviceable) with fried bananas ($3). The sesame-seed-flecked, coconut-cream-doused rice, despite one over-toasted hard edge, walks that gorgeous line of sweet and salty fusing into one, and sings as a starchy cohort to the soft fleshy fruit. The ice creams, again appreciatively treated with a hard rain of crumbled peanuts, are almost eclipsed by the six fantastic, crunchy-crusted banana rounds orbiting the single scoop under a pretty mint garnish.
We're so taken aback by them that we inquire about the battering. And there that outstanding service comes again, with Vongnarat, a Bay Area transplant, returning from the kitchen displaying a bag of Sing Kung Corp Banana and Shrimp Batter Mix — available at Asian import stores, constructed partially out of wheat flour and potato and corn starches.
It seems that culinary secrets don't necessarily make Sengchanh's Thai food largely superior. It's just good people working hard to make good food.
And that's more than good enough.