Monday, July 25, 2011

No Chicken Sauté for You!

The best thing about the statistics class I took sophomore year of college was that it was held in the basement of building 420. Although it doesn’t look like much, this basement is home to two of Stanford’s most famous institutions: the psychology department and the Thai Café. My class met twice a week and ended right before noon, which meant that after spending a strenuous one hour and fifty minutes daydreaming, playing Sporcle games, and reading every article on the New York Times website, I could treat myself to lunch at the Thai Café.

My favorite part about eating at Thai Café was interacting with the owner, who is basically the campus’s version of the Soup Nazi. She yelled at me and then fed me, so she reminds me of my mother, and for that I love her. She pulls her hair back in a tight bun and wears even tighter sweaters. One day I went for lunch and realized with a shock that her figure had overnight become much more…pneumatic. If the rumors are true, it’s a testament to the Thai Café’s popularity and profit margins.

For those who have never been to the Thai Café before, it’s best to go with a more seasoned veteran, since there are a few unspoken rules you’ll have to follow in order to have an optimal experience. But if you don’t have a Stanford connection who can be your lunch buddy, here are some helpful hints:

1. Be patient: The food options on campus generally range from bland to revolting. Thai Café is far and away the best lunch option (and best deal) at Stanford, which means the line can go out the door around noon. But don’t be discouraged; the Thai Café Soup Nazi lady is nothing if not efficient, so the line moves quickly.

2. Know what you want to order ahead of time: Once you get to the register, any hesitation or questions will get you kicked to the back of the line with no mercy. Study the menu while you’re waiting—it’s not long. If in doubt, you can’t go wrong with the daily special.

3. Have your money ready: Again, any dawdling will result in exasperated sighs, death stares, and possible expulsion to the back of the line. Bonus points if you pay in exact change.

4. Under absolutely no circumstances should you ask for substitutions or extras: Really, after all I’ve told you this shouldn’t be a surprise.

Once you give your order the Thai Café lady will shrilly yell it out to her coworker in the back (I still hear cries of “chicken sauté!!” in my dreams). Almost immediately a random Asian man will appear from what looks like a utility closet with your plate of food. Once he showed up and handed me my food before I had even finished putting my change back in my wallet. I’ve tried peeking into the “kitchen” to get a better glimpse of the place’s inner workings, but all I could see was a massive rice cooker, so for all I know the Thai Café is actually a long-running Stanford psych experiment.

Everything on the menu is delicious, but my favorite dish is the chicken sauté. It has a perfect ratio of chicken to vegetables to sauce to rice and strikes just the right balance of spicy, tangy, salty, and MSG-y. The peanut sauce salad, curries, and soups are also quite good. Almost everything comes with a slice of lemon, which is a nice touch. If I’m going to be honest with myself, I would not be impressed with this food if I ate it at a sit-down restaurant in downtown Palo Alto. But the fact that you have to work a little for it, and that it comes from a closet in a basement, makes it taste like a miracle from heaven.

After you’ve gotten your food, head outside if the weather is nice and try to nab a picnic table in the courtyard. Sit down, squeeze some lemon juice over your food, add a generous helping of Sriracha if that’s your thing, and eat. Congratulations, you’ve just had lunch at Thai Café and successfully accomplished what was one of my favorite things to do when I was at college. I loved it so much that I even ended up taking that statistics class twice.

The Thai Café is located at 450 Serra Mall, Building 420 on Stanford campus. It underwent renovations in 2010 so now food is served through a window, but I imagine the experience remains essentially the same. Hours are Monday – Friday, 11:00am – 2:15pm. Everything is $6, tax included.