1243 9th Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94122
Tel: (415) 731-9999
Price range ($15 and up)
Stepping foot at Marnee Thai on 9th Avenue, an immediate sense of authenticity heightens my senses. Right behind the sidewalk window, chefs demonstrate their knife skills preparing fresh garnishes on their many vibrant dishes. Dressed in dark Thai silk shirt, Kas (son of founder Chai and May Siriyarn) greet us with a smile.
Coffee mug sized spotlights highlight the fixtures on the table, including a purple orchid on the orange table. Amber colored walls reveals a sense of calmness. On my many visits to this popular neighborhood restaurant, service has been attentive and consistent.
For starters, the spicy angel wings ($7.50) have been known to rival the popular dry fried chicken at San Tung. Garnished with fried basil leaves, the spicy angel wings is all about flavor combination Drenched in a honey glaze, the wings are amplified with a stir fried chill-garlic sauce.
For a cool contrasting appetizer dish, the green papaya salad (shredded papaya with dried shrimps, tomatoes and peanut) with the sour and spicy lime dressing does the trick. With smoky char flavor, the chicken satay ($7.50) is sweetened with their peanut curry sauce.
A similar rendition to sweet and sour soup, the tom yum ($7.50-chicken) with obvious citrus notes of lemongrass and lime juice stimulates the appetite.
Arriving in a colorful orange red sauce, the pad thai ($7.50) is especially great here. Chef Chai has won numerous awards for this popular rice noodle dish. Texture is what seperates this tangy dish from other Thai restaurants.
The sweet and sour sauce seeps into the noodles cooked al dente. Another taste observation is the well balanced use of fish sauce and tamarind juice, which other chefs have yet mastered. Pairing a dish on that foggy night, the panang beef ($8.95) was a great choice.
Made tender from hours of stewing, tender beef chunks bathe in a gravy like sauce. The full bodies sauce displays a slight spicy flavor from the curry paste but the coconut milk creates a silky finish. Served in a silver grand container, rice compliments the dish.
Reminding me of a funnel cake from carnivals, the chewy roti with coconut is great dessert to finish the meal. The dessert is all about temperature contrast. Chill coconut ice cream pairs well with a circular room temperature roti cake.
After graduating from UC Riverside, Kas Chai (22) has chosen the entrepreneur route and continues his father’s legacy. Kas Chai said, “I finally get to know may dad more as a person by working with him daily. During my childhood, the restaurant hours made it impossible for me to spend time with him.”
He also advises that aspiring restaurateurs must be prepared to make sacrifices. While his college friends are going to clubs and partying over the weekends, he commits himself to the restaurant. In the business, he noted that he works when his friends are ready to have a good time out.
With a smirk on his face, Chai cautioned “Don’t get into the restaurant business simply for the money because the stress you’ll experience will be enough to make you crack if your heart is not in it.” After the restaurant closes, Kas and his father work in the kitchen to mix the coveted pad Thai sauce and other family recipes. He admits that it is a lonely life for him but his vision to continue the legacy acts as the primary drive.
Marnee Thai’s road to success had been a long one. With the first location (between 23rd and 24th) opening in 1986, his father worked sixteen hours a day. With the restaurant now established with a consistent clientele, father Chai has become a guest lecturer at Culinary Institute of America.
His father’s cookbook, Thai Cuisine Beyond Curry, is a tribute with recipes from Chai’s grandmother that can be purchased at the restaurant.