Thai Lemongrass is a Family Affair

Gingery ground pork with crunchy-chewy rice cakes make up this delight salad at Thai Lemongrass.

The Chakreeyarat family ran the tucked-away Thai Bistro in San Jose for many years.

Doing it all, every day, at that small eatery, though, eventually wore on  matriarch Pat Pongsil. She closed shop, and retired.

But it wasn’t long before the 70-year-old was itching to get back in the kitchen.

So, in August of last year, she opened Thai Lemongrass in a strip mall off El Camino Real in Sunnyvale, in what was once an Indian restaurant.

Last month, I was invited to be a guest of the restaurant. The dining room is simple and sparse. But from the moment you walk in, you feel like you’re in Pongsil’s warm home about to enjoy a most satisfying meal.

Pat Pongsil at work in her kitchen at Thai Lemongrass.

Thai Lemongrass is a true family affair. Daughter Jenny Chakreeyarat, who used to work at the nearby Ginger Cafe in Sunnyvale, runs the dining room. Her sister, Jennet, helps her Mom cook in the kitchen.

A sampler of appetizers arrived moments after we sat down. Pongsil wanted us to try a variety of bites, including vegetarian spring rolls filled with glass noodles, carrot and cabbage; pastry puffs filled with curry chicken, and golden fried shrimp cakes and fish cakes. Each came with a different dipping sauce — all arranged on an artsy platter with built-in sauce wells.

A sampler of appetizers, each with its own dipping sauce.

Sauces are a big thing here, as Ponsil makes all of them from scratch. The curries, in particular, are outstanding, with a deep, rich, velvety nature you don’t always find elsewhere. You can try a range of them if you order the roti, which comes with curry sauces to dip into. These roti are flat like pancakes, rather then fluffy and free-form at other places. Although I prefer the latter type, these were still hard to resist, especially with the sauces alongside.

Pan-fried roti with an assortment of curry sauces to dip into.

Most dishes can be made either mild, medium or hot. We were advised that “medium” here is like “hot” at other places, and that wasn’t far off the mark. My husband, who is a little more sensitive to heat than I am, started requesting “mild” instead after tasting one of the “medium” dishes that came out first.

Tom Yum with chicken ($7.99) will fortify you and restore you with its spicy, tangy broth aromatic with lemongrass, galanga and kaffir lime leaves.

A soup you'll crave.

Nam Sod & Kao Tod ($13.99) is a delightful pile of ground pork seasoned with loads of ginger, garlic, peanuts and chili. Alongside are little rounds of fried Jasmine rice cakes, crunchy on the outside and wonderfully sticky-chewy on the inside.

Pad thai with shrimp ($8.99) is served with a slice of lemon, rather than the usual lime. The thin,rice stick noodles are coated in the familiar tamarind-based sauce that’s not overly sweet here.

Pad thai with shrimp and tofu.

Stir-fried bass with carrots, onions and peppers.

Kra paw fish ($9.99) brought slivers of bass stir-fried in a dark brown chili-garlic-onion-basil sauce that gave the fish the coloring almost of meat. Spooned over coconut rice ($2.50 for a small), the savory dish picked up a bit of sweetness.

A touch of salt in this sweet rice dessert makes it extra special.

Of course, you can never pass up mango sticky rice at a Thai restaurant. This one is exceptional — offered only when fresh mango is in season, too. The long rice grains are sweetened with sugar and just a touch of salt, which was the perfect touch to keep the sweetness in check.

Pongsil may have opened the restaurant because she missed keeping busy. With food this satiating, I’m sure she’ll be busier than she ever dreamed.

More: My Meal at Ginger Cafe

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