On the Menu: Lanna Thai Cuisine in Pacific Beach

Dining area at Lanna Thai Cuisine in Pacific Beach.
Dining area at Lanna Thai Cuisine in Pacific Beach.
(Kasamat Thampiruk )

When you walk through the soothing entranceway of Lanna Thai Cuisine, a long-standing fixture of the Pacific Beach ethnic dining scene, you are welcomed by a rustic, iridescent sandstone etching of a pair of bejeweled Thai princesses bowing in gratitude.

Jack Jaroenlapnoparat, owner of Lanna Thai, an eatery named after the region in his native land, which translates to “millions of rice fields,” hails from a culture steeped in hospitality, graciousness, and a desire to feed and nourish people. This credo is reflected in Thailand’s ubiquitous greeting, “Gin khao reu yung?,” meaning, “Have you eaten rice yet?”

Born and raised in Bangkok, Jaroenlapnoparat garnered his art and passion for Thai cuisine at the tender age of 7 when he became sous chef for his busy mom, who ran a business by day, and cooked at night for her large family.

His desire to operate and own a Thai restaurant solidified during his college years when he worked in the food service industry wearing various hats, from waitstaff and expediter to kitchen prepper and cook, while earning his MBA in finance. When jobs evaporated in his field, Jaroenlapnoparat decided to embrace his entrepreneurial spirit, and opened the doors at 4501 Mission Bay Drive 16 years ago.

Many of his mom’s authentic creations have been transported over generations — and 8,300 miles across the Pacific — landing on his bountiful menu as long as mung bean glass noodles, “or my name,” he jokes, with a few SoCal tweaks.

Some customer favorites include a grilled Angus steak salad with an oomph from fish sauce, red chilies, and lime juice, a pan-fried salmon fillet on a bed of baby spinach and topped with sassy Thai mango salsa, and a crispy battered duck breast over an eye-popping blend of sliced tropical fruits.

Yum Neur — steak salad
(Kasamat Thampiruk )

Staples like rice paper-wrapped shrimp and veggie rolls with fresh peanut dipping sauce, Tom Kha (broth of coconut milk, lemongrass, and chicken), Pad Thai and Pad Kee-Mao (drunken noodles) please traditional palates, while more intrepid taste buds venture into the sumptuous “Ocean” and “Daily Specials” real estate sections of the menu.

Tom Kha soup
Tom Kha soup
(Kasamat Thampiruk )

These highlight such exotic dishes as a whole lightly battered Branzini bass with a sweet, spicy, and sour tamarind sauce, a braised lamb shank smothered in mild Massaman curry with hints of cardamom and cinnamon, and “Island Treasures” blending shrimp, squid, mussels, and scallops tossed in a creamy Thai basil curry sauce — all stuffed in a young coconut shell. And as cooler temps loom, the menu offers more hearty dishes to warm the cockles of the heart, such as family-style seafood stews and hot pots.

Summer salmon
(Kasamat Thampiruk )

Lanna Thai also customizes the “heat” on a scale from 1 to 10, the former to accommodate the faint-of-heart diners, and the latter for fearless capsaicinophiles, while curry is served in Technicolors of red, green, and yellow. Vegetarians and vegans can find ample offerings in noodle, fried rice, and wok stir-fry dishes with eggplant and other fresh delights, mock duck, and tofu add-ins. All washed down with a refreshing swig of fresh young coconut juice.

For sweet endings, try the coconut sticky rice topped with crispy mung beans and fresh mango slices, or a fried banana with house made coconut or Thai tea ice cream.

Coconut sticky rice with mango
Coconut sticky rice with mango
(Kasamat Thampiruk )

A culinary team of seven led by Executive Chef Douangden Yotbounme, along with a congenial service staff keep the restaurant humming. While Lanna Thai attracts seasonal tourists, most customers are local, multi-generational, and many might even have to start paying rent as they frequent the eatery three to five times a week. The humble restaurateur attributes customer loyalty to, “consistency in the quality and taste of the dishes year after year.”

Lettuce wrap
Lettuce wrap
(Kasamet Thampiruk )

A health enthusiast, Jaroenlapnoparat shares this ethos with his customers by serving the freshest and highest quality, locally-sourced ingredients, especially a load of fresh fruits and vegetables, herbs, spices and roots. These not only amp up texture and flavor, but provide a rich store of antioxidant, antiviral, and anti-inflammatory properties, including ginger, galanga (a cousin to ginger), lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, fresh mint, chilies, garlic, and turmeric, which are particularly welcome during this flu, cold, and COVID climate.

Lanna Thai is open seven days a week for lunch and dinner, and offers delivery and take-out. Lunch specials are available Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. It opens for dinner at 4:30 p.m. Weekends are from noon onward.

By the way, “Have you eaten rice yet?”

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Here is Jaroenlapnoparat’s recipe for Thai Grilled Steak Salad (Yum Nuer).

Serves 2

1-pound skirt steak or flat iron steak

2 tbsp mushroom thin soy sauce

1 tbsp sesame oil

½ teaspoon ground coriander

6 tbsp lime juice

3 tbsp fish sauce

2 tsp sugar

3 to 5 fresh Thai chilies, sliced thin crosswise, or ½ to 1 tsp ground roasted dried Thai chilies

7 sprigs fresh mint, stems removed

1 small red onion, thinly sliced

5 sprigs cilantro, stems removed

2 tbsp roasted rice powder

1 heart of Romaine lettuce

1 Roma tomato, sliced crosswise

1/3 cucumber, sliced crosswise

Roasted rice powder (if not available at the market) --

1-cup sticky rice

5 kaffir lime leaves, chopped

1 lemongrass stalk, cut off leaves, chopped

1/3 small galangal, chopped (optional)

Roast raw sticky rice in a hot skillet, cast iron pan, or wok over low to medium heat for about 12 minutes, or until golden brown. Stir constantly so it does not burn. Add lime leaves, lemongrass, and galangal, and blend well, stirring for 5 minutes. Grind in a mortar and pestle, or a clean electric coffee grinder until pulverized. This will make about a cup of roasted rice powder, and can be used in other Thai salads. Store in an airtight container in a cool, dry place for up to 3 months.

For the salad

Marinate steak in soy sauce, oil, and coriander for 20 minutes. Grill or broil until medium rare. Trim fat, and cool. Slice thin approximately 2 inches across and 1/8-inch thick.

In a medium mixing bowl blend chilies, fish sauce, lime juice, and sugar. Adjust to taste. Add sliced meat, and toss with onion, mint leaves, cilantro, and roasted rice powder. Layer a bed of lettuce on a serving platter. Place the steak mixture on top, and garnish with cilantro, sliced cucumbers, and sliced tomatoes.

Serves 2 to 3 as an appetizer, or as part of a meal.