I love hearing the answer to this question and thought it would be a fun feature to explore in the column. I’ll share mine, but I’ll also be asking other folks where they dine frequently in Oakland, visiting the restaurant, and reporting back.
The Basic “Go-To” Restaurant Criteria:
A place you recommend with no hesitation and limited qualification.
If you frequently dine with the same person, it’s that place you both agree to easily.
My first “Oakland Go-To” is the delicious and reasonably priced Chai Thai Noodles. I learned about this International Boulevard Thai/Lao restaurant just about a year ago, after asking a new colleague what his “Oakland Go-To” was. His recommendation was enthusiastic and our first visit did not disappoint.
Neither did our tenth. In fact, we’ve returned at least a dozen times with friends, family, and colleagues. What’s not to like? Most dishes are under $10, portions are generous, and the dishes are complex with thoughtful layers of flavor and texture. The sweet, sour, salty, balances work here and I’ve yet to have a dish I wouldn’t order again. While the entrees and stir fry noodle dishes are excellent, we tend to gravitate towards the salads, curries, and noodle soups. On our most recent visits, we’ve been enjoying:
Chai Thai’s Kao Nam Tod ($8.95), or Rice Ball Salad (pictured above), is my favorite version of this dish. A substantial mound of crispy deep fried rice, peanuts, cilantro, preserved pork, green onions, and much more, arrives on a beautiful plate accompanied by fresh, large, crisp leaves of romaine and sprigs of mint and cilantro.
A heaping spoonful of the rice mixture wrapped in lettuce and topped with herbs brings an excellent flavor dance to your mouth. The crunch of the deep fried rice and the softness of the pork. The crisp, cool lettuce holding it all together. Salty, sweet, earthy, bright, sour, spicy and more. The preserved pork actually tastes fermented (in a good way) and is served in both larger pieces and a larger amount than I have seen at other area restaurants. I could eat this dish every day.
After a significant hiatus from the menu, Gui Chai ($6.50) has made a return appearance. These crispy fried chive cakes come four to an order and are served with a sweet soy dipping sauce. These are not for those who don’t like a whole mouthful of chives. You pretty much need to be a chive lover. The rice flour outside can be a little chewy and gelatinous for some, but I’m definitely a fan.
Another standout appetizer is the Sai Aou ($7.95), a deep fried pork sausage served with peanuts, lime bits, cabbage and a chef’s dipping sauce. The skin is crisp and the inside is just moist enough to hold together. Each bite brings a pleasant balance of ground pork, onion, lemongrass, garlic, fish sauce, chile, and lime. It’s a lot to pack into a sausage, but nothing dominates, and somehow it still ends up tasting noticeably meaty.
Even though it’s been fried within an inch of its life, the sausage is remarkably grease-free. Also known as Sai Ua, this dish from the northern city of Chiang Mai comes pre-sliced for easy eating. The “chef’s dipping sauce” is a pungent and moderately sweet concoction that tastes of fish sauce, soy sauce, and a touch of sweetness.
Chai Thai offers nearly a dozen curries between their printed menu and specials. On our most recent visit, we tried the Pumpkin Curry ($9.95). Rich coconut milk red curry comes with sautéed pumpkin, bell peppers, and basil, and can be served with pork, chicken, or beef. We especially like the cubes of pumpkin that lend a hearty earthiness to the dish. It leans a bit to the sweet side, but with so many savory, spicy dishes, having a few dishes on the table with a little sweetness is nice.
We also love the Gang Kew Wan, or green curry (perhaps the best I have ever had), and the Gang Ga-Ree, a luscious yellow curry served with potatoes. Like most of their curries, both come as a rice plate ($8.50) or in a slightly larger a la carte portion without the rice ($9.95).
Taking a cue from a friend who we recently ate with, we asked our server to add green beans to the pumpkin curry so we could get a few more vegetables in. They were delicious in the curry, perfectly cooked.
Every time we visit, we have the same conversation. Do we want to share some curries and noodle plates, or each get our own choice from the Noodle Soups selections? We usually end up sharing anyway, but there’s one dish I hate to sacrifice even the tiniest spoonful of.
Kao Soy Thai ($7.95) is a rich coconut-milk based yellow curry soup served over boiled egg noodles and topped with crispy egg noodles. The soup is slightly sweet, but the sweetness is counterbalanced by pickled mustard greens. It comes with a generous portion of poached chicken and a scattering of red onions, cilantro and peppers. This dish is comforting and lush, thick, creamy, and expertly touching all the right notes Thai cuisine is known for.
This dish is also known as Chiang Mai Noodles as this version of the dish (there are Burmese, Lao and others) is eaten in northern Thailand. We look forward to trying the similarly named cousin of this dish, Kao Soy Laos ($7.95).
While the Kao Soy Thai is the dish I have to force myself not to order in the name of trying more of Chai Thai’s large menu, I never regret caving in and ordering it. But if we are talking soups, I’d be remiss not to mention the Pork Leg Stew Noodle ($8.95), the Beef Noodle Soup ($8.95) and the Tom Yum Noodle ($8.95).
The broth of the Pork Leg Stew Noodle is one of the most complex, deep, rich, and delicious broths I have had. It’s like a deeper, darker, richer cousin to another favorite, Vietnamese pho. The Beef Noodle Soup is a close second on our list with its chewy tripe, moist beef balls, and thin slices of beef. Finally, the Tom Yum Noodle dish brings two of my favorites together, tom yum soup, and noodles of your choice. I usually choose the wide flat noodles, not noodles you usually see on menus. The dish is definitely heavy on the sour side with a bright lemongrass and galangal broth.
I trust the vast majority of the menu at Chai Thai Noodles. There is an occasional miss or something less to my taste than I would like, but I never hesitate to recommend it to anyone and my husband and I always agree that it’s time for a visit. This fits both the criteria to be our first “Oakland Go-To.”
If you go:
Don’t skip the dry-erase board specials just because the writing has been up there for a while. We order from here frequently and not been disappointed.
When they ask if you want it spicy, they really do mean spicy. Really.
Ask for one of the revolving condiment holders which has pickled hot peppers, sambal, chili oil and crushed red peppers. You may not need it, but it’s nice to have the option.
The last seating each night is thirty minutes before closing, and they are closed each day from 4:00 – 5:00 pm.
Chai Thai Noodles
545 International Blvd, Suite B
Oakland, CA 94606 chaithainoodle.com
M-Th 11:00 am – 9:30 pm
F 11:00 am – 10:00 pm
S 11:30 am – 10:00 pm
Su 11:30 am – 9:30 pm
All major credit cards accepted.