These Thai dishes are guaranteed to bowl you over
At the end of a wearying day, I stepped inside Charm Thai Bistro as if into a holy refuge. Even though I’d arrived solo, the host didn’t make a fuss about seating me while I waited for my friend to arrive. He returned to the table several times to refill my teacup, never pressing me to order. Those few minutes gave me a respite from the day and a chance to regroup.
From my corner view, I watched pedestrians running errands in a hurry or slowly strolling by. This was a 180° turn from my last experience at 4063 Piedmont Ave.
When I showed up there during the buzziest season of a pre-pandemic Kronnerburger, the employees wouldn’t seat us inside the empty restaurant. We were told the entire space was booked for reservations only. So we made our way to Fenton’s, and sat at the counter to have our fill of fried food and ice cream. I didn’t make it back to Kronnerburger before they closed in 2018.
Charm’s co-owners, Anchalee Natasiri and Mia Kitcharoon, take a different approach to hospitality. Natasiri and her husband, Chuck Natasiri, opened Anchalee over two decades ago in Berkeley. When the Natasiris’ landlord asked them if they were interested in opening a second restaurant on his property on Piedmont Avenue, Anchalee Natasiri asked her longtime friend, Kitcharoon, to partner with her. Both Natasiris are chefs—they created the restaurant menus—while Kitcharoon manages the front of house at Charm.
“Charm in Thai means a bowl,” Anchalee Natasiri explained, “We think a bowl of food will make everyone happy.” The bowl of food that made us happiest at Charm was listed on the specials menu that night. Halibut green curry ($26) came out perfectly poached. A customary bitterness had been sautéed out of the thick slices of eggplant. The kitchen nearly convinced me that, when cooked properly, eggplant can even evoke a mild sense of sweetness.
The last crispy rice salad I tried was at the Fruitvale food truck Camchilao. Charm’s version, yum nam kao tod ($14), rivals it. The dish is reliant upon fresh leaves of lettuce and an array of complementary green herbs to wrap up the rice salad. Yum nam kao tod is one of those plates of food I could eat every day. It’s pretty to look at, fun to assemble and refreshing to eat. It has replaced basil lettuce wraps ($13), which aren’t bad, as my favorite. Ordinary lettuce wraps though can’t compete with the addition of crispy rice. It adds that extra, “I’m over the moon” feeling.
A second delicious special, an asparagus salad ($14), included grilled prawns. Both ingredients were perfectly charred. My friend took a picture of it, and we were both startled by the result: a bright coil of thinly sliced carrots on top of various vivid shades of green. Natasiri and Kitcharoon said that the dishes Charm serves are from central Thailand and Bangkok. “It’s food that you can find everywhere,” Natasiri said. “Curry, that’s the basic thing we eat all the time in Thailand.” They agreed that you can call it street food or comfort food. “It’s simple and what we ate growing up,” she added.
Kitcharoon’s favorite dish on the menu right now is moo krob ($13), crispy pork belly with a spicy lime sauce. “When you eat it, it’s the dish that makes you feel good!” Kitcharoon said, as she and Natasiri laughed in agreement. “If you ask Thai people, it’s everyone’s favorite,” she continued. Charm also has come up with a great technique for making sticky rice. Anchalee and Chuck’s secret is to use two kinds of rice. And they soak it for 24 hours before steaming it. Their version is recognizably sticky but also slightly softer than what’s typically served.
With Pla Daek opening up nearby, along with a general Thai restaurant boom in the East Bay, Natasiri and Kitcharoon aren’t concerned about the competition. “We concentrate on what we’re doing,” Natasiri said. “We put the effort in everything we do, and our customers have good things to say about it.” Kitcharoon believes that Charm’s concept is working because, “We cook what we like to eat.”
Charm Thai Bistro, open for lunch daily 11:30am-2:45pm, dinner Mon to Sat 4-8:45pm, Sun 4-7:45pm. 4063 Piedmont Ave., Oakland. 510.817.4768. charmthaipdm.com.