Thai Dragon House, a terrific and visit-worthy restaurant in the Lake Murray Square shopping center, might be renamed Thai Hidden-Dragon House. Its spot, suite 201, nestles in the farthest northwest corner from the Lake Murray Boulevard and El Paso Street intersection, so you can’t see it from the street.
The Silver Lake Building, which houses some dentist and periodontist practices, also blocks the view. But Thai (Hidden) Dragon House is well worth finding, as it’s a contender for La Mesa’s best Thai food.
I’m happy to report that there’s even a dragon inside—which is also hidden, on a wall display in a corner booth. Finding it is worth the effort. Thai Dragon House’s interior has all the dazzling adornment lacking from the building’s drab, nearly windowless exterior.
Walking in, you’ll first notice two golden, praying statues, kneeling beside a roofed lounge area containing comfy chairs and a curvy loveseat. The restaurant’s center has an array of royal-blue covered tables underneath golden-patterned panels accenting the ceiling.
At the perimeter meadow-green walls bestride reddish, lattice-covered booths adorned with a bamboo-flower vase. A television displays Thai women dancing in a garden as gamelan-tinged music soothes the atmosphere. The place looks and feels like a million bahts. (Or if you prefer U.S. currency, a million bucks.)
If the hidden dragon has a crouching tiger—or at least a fully upright tiger—it’s the pretty and good-humored owner Penny Thong, who served dinner to my friend and me during a recent weekday visit.
Thong and her husband opened Thai Hidden Dragon in May 2007, relocating from San Pablo (near San Francisco). After 24 years—or as Thong puts it, “too long”—they opted to flee the Bay Area’s glut of Asian restaurants, and at the time La Mesa was bereft of Thai competition.
That’s changed, and Thong laments the slowing of business. The local Thai and Laotian communities do keep things bustling on weekends, however, when Thai Dragon House hosts private parties. This also explains the curtained corner stage and keyboard for live music.
During dinner, Thong quickly brought us ice water and took drink orders. We opted for Singha, an urbane imported Thai beer ($3.50), and asked Thong to recommend an appetizer from the 12 options. She suggested the Thai Satay ($6.95), five pieces of skewered chicken (beef also available) with peanut sauce and cucumber sauce.
The chicken was thin-cut and lean, the sauces delicate, and we were off to a tasty start. Trying to be proper, my friend asked, “Do I use my hands?” and ever the smartass, I replied, “No, your mouth.” My rule: If it’s served on a stick, picnic techniques are acceptable.
Menu entrees include a section called Yum & Larb, which are Thai (and Laotian) styles involving minced and marinated meat, spices, lime juice and other mouth-watering elements—and with a name like “larb,” you know it’s good.
Alas, we didn’t get to try these (nor the numerous salads and noodle dishes) because Thong ardently recommended two of the Chef’s Specials, both original house recipes. “We’re the only ones around here who do this,” she said excitedly.
My selection was the Spicy Roasted Duck Curry ($10.95)—or as Thong calls it, C-7. It’s stir-fried roasted duck with pineapple, eggplant, basil and chili in a coconut red-curry sauce. Oh yeah, the serving dish is shaped like a duck. Nice touch.
My companion got the Mixed Seafood Mango ($10.95), also known as C-2. This one’s loaded with chunks of succulent mango, set aside mussels, shrimp, calamari, and assorted bell peppers, onions, and cashew nuts. Of course, the orders came with a plump round container of steamed rice.
Both meals were absolutely delectable. There was enough left over for three to-go boxes. Turned into the next day’s lunch, the food was no less optimal.
You could eat these concoctions with variable levels of spice and have a completely different experience. While taking our orders, Thong asked us how hot we’d like the spices on a scale of 1 to 10. I was feeling brave, especially with the frosty bottle of Singha in hand as a potential salve, so I said “7.” (My companion wimped out at a mere “5.”)
Checking that I wasn’t getting into trouble, I asked Thong, “Will it hurt?” and she said, “You gotta have spicy! Maybe you cry ... you can try.” She added that many repeat customers ask for a 20 or 30 on the 1-to-10 scale. Growing up in Thailand, where Thong lived till age 17, spicy papaya salad was a daily staple.
So I felt safe at level 7, and it was fine: Hot enough to warm the palate, but no discomfort involved. That is, until I failed to heed Thong’s earlier warning: “Be careful, that’s Thai chili on top—very hot!” The small shard of green chile, loaded with tiny seeds, turned out to be deadly.
After briefly gnawing upon it, I suddenly felt as though my mouth were full of hot lava. Face flushed and waving both hands like a spaz, I became the apex of hilarity to my friend, who documented my affliction with her iPhone 4.
Penny Thong walked over, grinning like a hybrid of the Cheshire Cat and The Joker. “How do I stop the pain?” I pleaded. Water and beer made it worse, and there wasn’t time to order a creamy Thai Iced Tea ($2) before my head exploded.
Thong knew the answer: She briskly retrieved a shaker of salt. Per her instructions, I dispensed granules onto my palm and pressed them evenly to my tongue. Remarkably, within seconds I felt 10 times better, and the alarm bells stopped clanging in my amygdala. I’d never heard of this before: Salt is the quick-fix remedy to a chili-pepper overload. “You’re the first customer I tell that. People never ask!”