When Chada Thai opened in Little Saigon in July in a 30-seat storefront next door to the sprawling Vietnamese mainstay Brodard, the owner hung a large banner above the door advertising “Thai Food.”
Next to that another sign declared: “Now Opening, By Thai People.”
The message was clear: Yes, this is the epicenter of Vietnamese food in Orange County, but this is a Thai restaurant, and it’s run by Thai people.
The owner is a guy named Val. You can’t miss him. He’s in the dining room every day, greeting customers, taking orders, delivering food, chatting with anyone who will humor him, always smiling. Sometimes he’s in the kitchen wearing an apron, packing takeout orders.
He moved here from Thailand in the 1970s, he said. He had another Thai restaurant in O.C. before this one, “but there was a fire,” so he took some time off to regroup. The food he served at that other place, like so many other Thai restaurants around here, was “more Americanized, more Chinese, not really authentic.”
But he sensed the times were changing, so when he finally opened Chada Thai, he scrapped the Chinese and American stuff. He wanted to get back to his roots, to be more authentic, to serve the food he likes to eat.
You’ll still find many familiar classics on the menu here, things like spicy beef salad, crab fried rice, papaya salad, pad thai and rad nah. And those things are all very good. But dig a little deeper. Look for the fishcakes. This is where you really taste the difference.
Lots of restaurants serve fishcakes, and they are almost universally awful, tasting nothing at all like the fishcakes I’ve enjoyed in Thailand. These are the first I’ve found locally that come anywhere close to my fondest memories of Bangkok or Koh Pha Ngan. They are soft and supple. Their fragrance is mysterious and exotic, completely transportive.
“They’re good, aren’t they?” Val asks. “They’re awesome,” I say.
He tells me they’re homemade. He…