It’s all about the fish sauce.
The fermented, salty sauce seems almost ubiquitous now, but it wasn’t so long ago that one had to hunt through the aisles of Asian supermarkets to find a bottle. Ocean-rich umami and unapologetically funky, it is today the secret ingredient, not only in Southeast Asian cuisine, but in trendy restaurant dishes and blogger recipes alike.
There are several Thai and Southeast Asian restaurants across the Bay embracing the call of fish sauce funk, but these restaurants typically fall into two camps: trendy chef-focused spots looking for their next James Beard Award or a nondescript restaurant with two menus, one for Americans and one for Thais. You likely can’t bring your great aunt Mildred to either one.
These restaurants stand in distinct contrast to those generic, take-out-centric joints that populate student-heavy areas like Downtown Berkeley and serve overly sweet bowls of curry without a whiff of fermented fish. There hasn’t, until recently, been a restaurant that successfully bridges the gap between the funky and the generic. Enter Imm Thai.
The street food-inspired restaurant opened last fall on University Avenue, right next to campus and within spitting distance of several of those generic Thai restaurants. Much of Imm Thai’s menu does look familiar — its got a pad Thai, tom yum soup, fried spring rolls, and the usual array of coconut-based curries. But what the menu doesn’t say is that Imm Thai brings the funk, sort of.
On a recent visit, we tried a table’s worth of dishes and only one lacked oomph.
That dish, larb gai, is a chopped chicken salad studded with onion and herbs and tossed with chili, lime, and roasted rice powder. The seasonings are inoffensive and mild, but we were looking for more fish sauce, more acid, more crunch. Chopped green leaf lettuce was distracting and an unnecessary attempt to turn the meat-based salad into something more akin to an American appetizer.
The green curry, on the other hand, was delightful. It had the slow, building burn of green Thai chiles in spades, with undertones of briny fish sauce and floral galangal, all bolstered by rich coconut milk. Each curry comes as an entrée, with vegetables and a choice of meat, or as a simple dipping sauce served with pan-fried roti. The bread is serviceable, but seems like an afterthought to the curry — there’s none of its signature flakiness.
Duck noodle soup is a popular dish; images of the sweet-and-savory dish are almost as prevalent on the restaurant’s Yelp page as its promotional Thai iced tea (Imm Thai doesn’t have a website). The honey-roased duck itself is a house specialty and a decent iteration of the form. If anything, the meat skews dry, but that matter is easily overlooked once dipped into the broth. Imm Thai calls the soup “deep flavor,” which translates to umami-rich, salty (a bit too much so), and full of warm spices. It is a fine counterpoint to the gamey duck meat. The best part of the dish, however, are the egg noodles, springy, well-seasoned, and tangled up with earthy spinach and crunchy bean sprouts.
Another house specialty, kana moo krob, was also quite successful. Imm Thai’s version marries deep-fried pork belly, Chinese broccoli, garlic, and a spicy-sweet sauce, again flavored with warm spices. The menu boasts that the pork belly is cured in-house, but like the duck soup, the pork verges on over-seasoned, especially when tossed in the sauce. Crisp, cooling bites of Chinese broccoli are a balancing counterpoint; make sure to get a piece in every bite.
If you love to eat at restaurants like Hawker Fare in Oakland or regularly ask for dishes made Thai spicy at Da Nang, Imm Thai isn’t going to blow you out of the water. But it doesn’t need to. Imm Thai instead offers a middle ground, a place where a fish sauce fiend can comfortably coexist with her less-adventurous friends.