Located on Lindbergh, is just as its name implies, a true pearl.
The exterior looks like a generic Chinese restaurant, but once you enter, it's a different world. The cafe is a casual and classy establishment decorated in warm browns and dark mustard yellows, black lacquered wood chairs and a single potted ivy leaf on each table.
Open the door, and you’re greeted with the rich smells of basil and curry as a stream of hungry people stop in to pick up their carry-out orders. The friendly staff joked with regulars picking up dinner on their way home after work. That was a good sign, so I was incredibly optimistic as I chose my table.
The menu is broken down into stir fry, fried rice, noodles, curry, vegetarian and house specialties. Most entrees are around $10, maxing out at $15.95 for the Pan Fried Noodles with Seafood.
The menu holds a great deal of flexibility. With your curries, noodles and stir fries, you can select beef, chicken, pork, shrimp or tofu as your protein. They’re more than happy to substitute bell peppers for onions or carrots for broccoli if you want to customize the rest of your dish. You also choose the heat, from a nonexistant zero to a mouth scorching 5. I opted for a mild 2, which was just enough to loosen my clogged sinuses.
The appetizer menu has some classics such as Chicken Satay for $7.95, Chicken Lettuce Wraps for $8.95, Thai Butterflies (Crab Rangoon under another name) for $5.95, but I was seduced by the lure of something new and different. It's one of my favorite staple kitchen ingredients; although, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Fried Sweet Potatoes, but I had to find out.
The $5.50 appetizer was presented as a lovely pyramid made from more than a dozen neatly arranged thick, crunchy brown sticks in a crisp, dark golden brown batter. Each one contained a long rectangle of soft sweet potato surrounded by a sweet, almost donut-like batter made with fresh coconut shreds. It was accompanied by a thick, sweeter than sour, Thai-style dipping sauce dusted generously with chopped peanuts.
If you'd like something different but not overwhelming to tempt your sweet tooth, these would be equally good as a dessert or an appetizer. Whether you try them at the beginning or end of your meal, they're fantastic.
My $10 entree of Spicy Green Beans was basically a stir-fried red curry without the coconut milk, which I found was a nice variation. It came loaded with green beans, slices of red and green bell pepper, fresh lime leaves and a sauce rated 2 out of 5 on the house's heat scale.
The firm, stir fried vegetables were tender and crisp, while the chicken was soft and tender. If you’re looking to shave a few calories off the usual coconut milk infused Thai curries, this is an incredibly tasty alternative.
While the vegetables were good, the rich red curry sauce was really the star of this dish. I could eat a plain bowl of rice drenched in it; although, the fresh vegetables make it that much better.
Despite the low prices and casual atmosphere, the dishes were all attractively plated. The carefully arranged pyramid of sweet potato sticks were presented on a white rectangular plate with an altar of dipping sauce at the base. My entree spanned the plate and was capped off with a hand-carved tomato rose on a slice of cucumber with a sprig of parsley to complete the flower.
The atmosphere, attention to detail and incredibly friendly staff would make this a great restaurant for a date. The small, intimate feel of the dining room, large and sharable portions plus very affordable prices create the feeling you put some care into your choice without trying too hard.
Since I’d stopped in for an early dinner, the friendly, outgoing staff kept a running conversation with me between meal courses. By the time I left, I felt like they genuinely wanted to see me back again. They were equally friendly with the constant stream of take-out customers, many of whom had obviously been in plenty of times.
The sweet potato appetizer, green bean curry and an iced tea came to $17. You can shave a few dollars off the same combination by showing up for lunch. My food was more than enough for two people. I took home enough to enjoy a hearty reheated lunch the next day. The sweet potatoes crisped up well in a toaster oven, while the curry was fine coming out of the microwave.
Excellent food, healthy options, warm atmosphere and extremely friendly, outgoing service earns Pearl Cafe a solid A.
Special Diets: Vegetarian, Lactose Intolerant