Few restaurant neighborhoods in the San Gabriel Valley are more depressing than the stretch of Huntington connecting Monrovia and Arcadia. You name the soulless chain, and it’s here, from Macaroni Grill to the Olive Garden. So we’re grateful to our friend Sherri (Vroman’s book buyer and avid cook) for turning us on to Basil Thai, a rare family-owned café in the heart of chainland.
Not only is Basil a friendly family operation (husband Poki does the cooking, wife Nina serves, and their teenage son helps out sometimes), but it’s a great value, which is why it’s our recession-friendly pick this week. Many regulars return for the lunch buffet at least weekly. A mere $6.95, it includes a soup, spring rolls, two chicken dishes, several vegetable dishes and two kinds of rice. The offerings get bare if you arrive after 12:30, but just say the word and Poki will whip up a fresh replacement for an empty buffet dish.
While the buffet is the bargain to beat, we usually order from the menu, which is still a great deal; most entrees average $7.95, and appetizers are big enough to share. Poki’s cooking is several notches above the suburban strip-mall standard — vegetables are crisp and fresh, flavors are skillfully balanced, and chiles are used for flavor, not just to make your face sweat. Try the tom yum (spicy-sour) soup with shrimp, the stir-fried chicken with cashews and onion, the yum pla muek (a vibrant salad of fresh greens, grilled squid, lime and chile) and any of the rice noodle dishes.
As for the setting, it’s strip-mall stylish in a minimalist, late-’90s way, with concrete floors, plywood cut into angled geometric shapes, bare wood tables and vaguely Eurotrashy music on the stereo. To drink are the usual suspects: Thai iced tea, Singha beer, and a couple of wines; you can bring your own for a $6 corkage.
Basil Thai Cooking, 411 E. Huntington Dr., Arcadia, 626.447.8845. L Mon.-Fri., D Mon.-Sat. Thai. Beer & wine. MC, V. $