It's hard to miss Thai Gourmet (or Thai Gourmet by Sri Maya, as it's properly called) as you drive down busy Second Street in crazed Belmont Shores. The place is dominated by red, red and more red. The front is also a sort of brownish taupe with gold letters. But what you see (or at least, what I see) are the red pillars in front, which lead you into a room with lots more red on the walls. Again, there are other colors, but red is red — it's a color that's hard not to notice.
Thai Gourmet is a fine reminder of what a good cuisine this is for those who opt to pass on meat — for a night, for a week, or for a lifetime. The problem with many (so many!) vegetarian restaurants is that they're so busy removing meat from their dishes, they've forgotten to replace them with flavor. Sorry, but tofu cheese is not a reasonable (or acceptable) substitute for gruyere. Chicken made out of tempeh is an interesting notion, but when you've got your groove on for chicken, it just doesn't make it.
If you want good vegetarian food, then go to a non-vegetarian restaurant and order the meatless dishes. Works every time. Have you ever noticed how many of the dishes at Italian restaurants are meatless? Indian restaurants are, by definition, Heaven on Earth for veggies. And Siamese joints? No worries, there are vegetable dishes to spare here.
The menu at Thai Gourmet doesn't just randomly distribute its meatless dishes. There are sections headed “Vegetarian Appetizers,” “Vegetarian Soups,” “Vegetarian Salads,” “Vegetarian Curries,” “Vegetarian Entrees” and “Vegetarian Noodles.” They don't need to list Vegetarian Desserts because, well, that's what desserts are.
The vegetarian options are mostly built around tofu, the go-to source of protein for those who don't eat critters. There's an app of deep-fried tofu, topped with crushed peanuts and the sweet chili sauce that's one of the hallmarks of Thai cooking. It tastes really good, though I suspect my sneakers would taste good with enough chili sauce.
There's tofu in the two vegetarian soups as well, the tom yum tofu and the spicy coconut soup, but most of the flavor comes from the rest of the soup, the lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, mushrooms and lime juice. Though admittedly, I do miss the presence of shrimp, which is why I lean towards non-veg tom yum goong and tom kha goong.
The notion of vegetarian salads may seem a bit quirky — aren't salads veggie by definition? They are in some cuisines, but not in the world of Thai, where the salads generally are heavy with minced meats, grilled pork, ribeye, salmon and shrimp. But once again, there's so much going on in the vegetarian salads, you probably won't miss the meat for the glass noodles, sliced scallions, Asian parsley, mint leaves, dried chili flakes, cashew nuts, spicy lime dressing and peanut dressing.
Busy is a defining quality of Thai cooking. There's nothing on the menu that's just one thing. Consider the dish made with shrimp, red chili paste, pineapple, coconut milk, sweet basil, red Serrano peppers and kaffir lime leaves. It's a stew and three quarters, an exercise in the many levels of flavor that can exist in a single dish. There's a variation on it that adds sliced pumpkin as well. Toss in some pineapple fried rice (which also includes shrimp, raisins, onion, cashews and yellow curry) and you have a downright symphony of flavors, a combo of dishes that almost completely overwhelm your taste buds.
To calm things down, consider a tasty plate of pad Thai, the classic fried flat rice noodle dishes made with bok choy, carrots, egg and soy; this is a dish that's nearly minimalist by comparison. Or maybe the entrée called, simply enough, “Pepper and Garlic” which is just that: meat of your choice tossed with pepper and garlic. The desserts are essential. There's mango sticky rice, warm and gooey and mixed with coconut milk. And sticky rice with Thai egg custard. No tofu, though it might work. I'm not ruling it out.
Merrill Shindler is a Los Angeles-based freelance dining critic. Send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.