The placid hillside village of Montclair may not be the first place you picture when you hear about Asian food so spicy that it brings you to tears and leaves you grasping for a pitcher of creamy Thai iced tea. But that may change, now that food mogul Kasem “Pop” Saengsawang has brought a colorful crew and an arsenal of potent and palatable recipes with the opening of Daughter Thai. This southern Thai restaurant is housed in the former location of short-lived Chowhaus, on a small strip of Medau Place between Moraga Avenue and Mountain Boulevard.
The modest dining space retains the rustic sensibility and farmhouse appeal of its former tenant. White slatted walls, exposed ceilings and a long community table centered under three massive barn lights are accentuated by the added flair of vibrant servers made up in glitter and gloss and decked in a kaleidoscope of tropical colors.
The only thing more striking than the splashy staff are the glamorous plates that come out to the table. Mounds of coconut rice and herbs are piled high atop traditional red and white platters (the same kind you’ll find at Saengsawang’s other restaurants, Kitchen Story in San Francisco and Farmhouse Kitchen Thai in San Francisco and Portland). The herbal accouterment aren’t there just for show, Saengsawang explains. And neither is the Thai tea-cum-slushie that the servers bring out with them. They are the only relief for an American palate from the blazing spice of Daughter Thai’s hottest dishes.
“Southern Thai is more like Indian or Malaysian food,” said Saengsawang. “It’s different from [the cuisine of] Bangkok,” which is more akin to the style of food you’ll find at his Farmhouse locations. “Spicy [at Daughter Thai] means super spicy.”
Some of the recipes, like the legendary Hat Yai fried chicken, carry over from the menu at Farmhouse, but many come from the kitchen of co-owner Kimberly Gamble, the daughter after whom Daughter Thai got its name. Gamble grew up in the kitchens and restaurants of her mother, Prakin Gamble, owner of Lanna Thai in Livermore. Though the younger Gamble swore as a pre-teen she’d make a life for herself outside of the industry, by the time she hit college, the kitchen was calling.
“She missed the sound of the kitchen, the sizzling of the wok, and the people yelling ‘curry,’” said Saengsawang. Now Gamble, like her mother, is involved in all parts of the business.
In the seven months since the eatery opened, Saengsawang has been surprised by the palates of his Montclair patrons. “The new generation has a palate that is already open,” he explained. “Especially to Asian culture.” Though there are items on the menu that cater to sensitive palates, Saengsawang doesn’t serve tamed down versions of traditional fare. “It has to go out like the normal Thai eat. So ‘spicy’ means ‘damn spicy.’”
Several of Daughter Thai’s spicier dishes — including muek yang, a perfectly charcoal-grilled octopus starter — feature a spicy-sour concoction of turmeric, galangal, lemongrass, black peppercorn, Thai chiles and kaffir lime leaves, which the restaurant refers to as “Godmother sauce.” According to Saengsawang, this creation — which is sold at the restaurant in 4 oz mason jars for $17 — is a reduction of the entire southern Thai flavor profile. Seafood, which is more readily accessible in the southern parts of Thailand, makes up a sizable portion of the menu.
Some of Saengsawang and Gamble’s top recommendations include the gang som white fish, a delicate filet of basa cooked in a super spicy curry and served with papaya and herbs, and the gang tai pla, a fermented fish stew made with Thai eggplant, green beans and plenty of potent and exotic spices. Both dishes had me wiping my brow and reaching for anything on ice. It’s no wonder that Gamble goes through a thousand pounds of chili each year.
Less tongue-burning fare can be found with the kang kua prawns, which are cooked with red turmeric, lemongrass, kaffir lime, and fresh young coconut, or the panang neua, a bone-in short rib, which is slow-cooked for 48-hours and served with sautéed veggies in a savory, rich and creamy curry.
I highly recommend taming your tongue by finishing your meal with a large scoop of luxurious coconut ice cream. But you can also cleanse your palate with a tasty cocktail, like the gin and basil-based Thai Lady, the sweet-and-sour peach and sriracha Pho #5, or the Island Caipirinha, a tropical concoction of strawberry, lime and Ypioca Cachaca.
So far, Daughter Thai’s clientele seems to be adapting just fine to the kitchen’s generous use of Thai chiles and turmeric. In fact, the restaurant is ramping up, rather than turning down, its use of spice. Starting in August, brave diners can take part in “Ped Rang” (which translates to “super spicy”), a two-month long spice challenge targeted to adventurous eaters. On Friday and Saturday evenings, Daughter Thai will offer an especially spicy dish using a homemade curry packed with Thai bird’s eye chiles. Patrons who finish the entire meal, which starts at $49, will receive it at no charge, along with a well-deserved bucket of Singha beer.