Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Mo' Pho! Thai Lai Vietnamese Restaurant

(yes, i know it's pronounced 'fher' no 'fo'...)

My friend Tracey was visiting from out of town recently and part of my outta-towner's culinary tour included Thai Lai, a South Bay Vietnamese joint on the corner of Rosecrans Ave and Prairie.

Inside: Fluorescent lighting. Check. Beige linoleum floor and varnished Formica tables. Check and check. Yup, it’s a hole-in-the-wall. However, the bright and clean interior and amiable wait staff makes the place more inviting than your average no-frills spot. Besides, the crowded tables indicate the diners are willing to trade mood-lighting for solid homestyle Vietnamese cooking (despite its misleading name, there is no thai green curry or tom kha kai soup in sight.)

Although the menu is in Vietnamese, no worries if you don’t know the Vietnamese lingo; the menu’s numbered items and photos of their most popular plates allow you to confidently point and nod—and actually know what you ordered.
Although my usual is their flavorful rice noodle 'bun' bowl filled with charbroiled pork, crispy-fresh vegetables and mint leaves, it was cold outside and we needed warming up. We ordered the #68 house special pho ($6.00); an aromatic, slow-simmered beef broth with rice noodles and green onions brimming with every type of beef under the sun (including slivers of steak, brisket, flank, beef balls and tripe). It’s traditionally breakfast fare but luckily for those who can't stomach such a hearty meat-laden meal before your morning coffee, it’s served all day.

We also split Thai Lai’s signature spring rolls. These plump, translucent rice-paper goi coun rolls ($2.50 for 2) are bursting with shrimp, bbq-basted pork, green onion and mint leaves peaking through the paper-thin wrapping. It comes with a peanut dipping sauce but both the hoison and fish sauce on the condiment table are also good. The crispy, golden-fried version, cha gio egg rolls ($4.50 for 5), come wrapped in lettuce cups and one bite will dispel any oil-soaked memories of the soggy, greasy spring rolls you get in Chinese takeout combo meals.

They don't have traditional desserts so you can get your sugar high from their exotic sweet drinks. Thai Lai's forty different candy-colored Vietnamese beverages are tastier than they sound—and at around $2.00, are well priced for experimenting if you’ve ever wondered what a salted plum soda or red bean jellygrass drink tastes like.

We left stuffed and only $22 lighter for the both of us. The dishes at this family-run eatery are as authentic as they are generous—so look past the non-descript, white stucco exterior and unglamorous Hawthorne locale to enjoy some of the best Vietnamese spring rolls outside of Buena Park’s Little Saigon.

Thai Lai Restaurant
14221 Prairie Ave, Hawthorne
(310) 973-0819

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