Thep Phanom used to be one of our favorites when we lived in the lower Haight. Even once we moved to another part of town, we kept coming back because the food was head and shoulders above the ordinary.
A few years ago, they started sliding. It seemed that the drop in quality coincided with the removal of the specials boards from above the windows. Although it paled in comparison, the food was still very good, and we kept coming back, kept recommending it as our favorite Thai place, kept ugring people to go…
So you can imagine our sadness after eating there twice in the last 6 weeks, and having two mediocre experiences. In December, we ordered a pair of our old favorites — tom yum goong and crispy basil chicken — plus salt-and-pepper beef, a new one for us. The soup was bland and unbalanced; the chicken, formerly blessed with a wispy crispy coating, now had a blatant battering; and the beef was interesting but not terribly Thai-flavored, and unpleasantly chewy. We chalked it up to a bad night, and didn’t give it much thought.
Last weekend, we went back with a couple of friends. We shared everything, so I had a chance to grasp the breadth of the problem:
Som tam — green papaya salad — is typically blazingly hot and pungently tart. Thep Phanom’s version was neither. The rather small portion was served in a cocktail glass.
Tom yum goong was dished out tableside into flat soup plates, rather than bowls. The broth was almost clear, not even a hint of redness from steeped shrimp shells or chiles. It tasted almost as bland as it looked: no hot, barely any sour, a paltry 4 shrimp for 4 people.
Larb ped featured tasty grilled, chopped duck meat, but the rest of the dish was bizarre. There were hardly any greens –typically you eat larb by rolling up the meat and seasonings in leaves of lettuce or other leafy veggies — and, again, the spice was almost non-existant. Larb is supposed to be HOT!
Basil chicken with crispy basil (gai kprow tod) suffered from the same problems as we noted on our last visit. Very sad… this dish used to be a true standout, a modern riff on a beloved thai classic. Now it wouldn’t be out of place at a cheap chinese takeout joint.
Panaeng beef curry was unspicy, badly balanced (sweet flavors completely overwhelmed the salty, spicy tastes) and oversauced.
Thep Phanom is still OK, but it’s no longer great. It may not even be better than average.
400 Waller Street
San Francisco, CA 94117