Few foods are humbler than the carrot. It’s cheap. It grows easily and anywhere. It’s plentiful. It’s heart-racingly bright, but so are highway cones. Even when crinkle-cut to party-prettiness, as it appears in Pin Toh‘s pad see ewe, prik king, and other Thai dishes, it’s still a root.
That’s why the tastiness of carrots in dish after dish at Pin Toh is a wonder. Between the teeth, Pin Toh’s carrots sing a wake-up song of primordial vegetable, vitamin rush, subterranean sweetness. Even in basic fare such as fried rice, this unapologetically plebian plant is coaxed in Pin Toh’s kitchen to the perfect verge of crunchiness, that transcendental border between raw and cooked. It’s a matter of heat, metal, and milliseconds. Talk about molecular gastronomy.
When was the last time you actively noticed carrots in a dish? When was the last time you ate the other ingredients first, just to save the carrots for last? Though at Pin Toh, it isn’t just carrots. It’s mushrooms gleaming dark and broccoli rearing rhapsodically green from rad na‘s tousled ridge of smokily singed, chewily rough rice noodles, swimming in a virtual bucketful of succulent brown gravy. It’s ribbons of cabbage calming the tongue in fiery green gang keaw wan curry thick with satiny-soft eggplant, jaunty bell pepper, seductive sweet basil, and dainty green peas. (When specifying the degree of spiciness you’d prefer in your order, keep in mind that Pin Toh’s “medium” is lip-searingly hot for the average American mouth.)
Preparing vegetables so expertly that their freshness is the first thing diners notice about a dish is a rare skill. It’s so rare, in fact, that even some of the savviest eaters among us don’t realize how low our standards have fallen regarding cooked produce. A few bites into a Pin Toh meal, we sit bolt-upright and ponder what we have been putting up with all this time: the overcooked, the undercooked, the overly al-dente, and the sludge.
It’s easy not to notice Pin Toh. Choosing a Thai restaurant is a crapshoot, because Thai restaurants are ubiquitous. In downtown Berkeley alone, Pin Toh has at least four competitors. It wasn’t always like this. Forty years ago, before the Vietnam War introduced the wider world to Southeast Asia, the average Californian couldn’t discern po-taek from pad thai. But the culinary landscape has changed. What Cantonese restaurants were to mid-20th-century America, Thai restaurants are now.
And while most are serviceable — have you ever eaten in a bad Thai restaurant? Do they even exist? — they’re largely interchangeable. The American public has come to expect and even welcome a certain reassuring sameness in their flavors, menus, and decor. And while Pin Toh sports the obligatory potted curlicue “lucky bamboo” and serves the classics, from satay to tom kha to Thai iced tea, diversions from cliché quickly emerge. A chic black ceiling meets dark walls, bisected all the way around, above head level, by a thin line of lime-green light beaming upward. This lizardy glow, along with turquoise-vinyl chrome-dinette-style chairs and throbbing music — No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak,” Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman” — further lend this place the moody mien of a spacecraft doubling as a dance club, even in daytime.
Although pho is Vietnamese, it’s a specialty here, served in helmet-size bowls that are engagingly difficult to drain in a single sitting. How many ways can noodle soup soothe? Along with a huge white skein of the requisite rice vermicelli, Pin Toh offers fifteen different component combinations, from the classic steak-and-tendon, steak-and-tripe, and brisket-and-flank to a seafood version featuring prawns, scallops, calamari, and red snapper. A vegetarian version is made with vegetable broth instead of the standard chicken broth. (A 37-item vegetarian menu augments the restaurant’s regular one.)
A far cry from those sparse and haphazard vegetarian versions of classic dishes served in too many restaurants, Pin Toh’s veggie pho is brimful with breathtakingly fresh produce and two kinds of tofu: fluffy fresh and densely pressed. On a convenient side plate await huge helpings of raw bean sprouts, cilantro, basil, and jalapeño pepper to add as you wish. Eating this pho is like embarking on a multicourse meal in one go: Crisp salad at first; then soup; then as its many flavors merge and deepen, it becomes a noodle entrée; and finally a soft and hearty stew.
Rice vermicelli reappear in fresh spring rolls, which comprise delicately chewy translucent wrappers stuffed to the size of eyeglass cases with noodles, bean sprouts, mint, lettuce, and thumb-size prawns. Served with an irresistibly rich coconut-peanut dipping sauce, it embodies yet again the resourcefulness and undersung sophistication of Southeast Asian cooking, that fork-happy travelogue of hot jungle and sea, a tropical alchemy of hot and sweet, crunchy and soft, laughably simple and sagely complex.
Thick rice noodles play a role in warmly filling pad kee maow, aka “drunken noodle,” paired with chili, garlic, sweet skinless tomatoes, basil, and borderline-tough strips of beef. Standing firm alongside all these bold flavors and textures is the strongest Thai iced tea you might ever taste: Flooding the bloodstream with an almost chocolatey astringency, a single sip inspires sudden confidence.
Easily overlooked upon a scan of the appetizer list, Pin Toh’s dauntingly lumpen-sounding “fried sweet potato” is Downtown Berkeley’s newest best-kept secret. Batter-fried like fish and chips, and soul-satisfying in the way that only tubers immersed in boiling oil can be, these golden discs are astoundingly light. They’re also subtly sweet, naturally so, in the way we would worship sweetness were our palates not dumbed-down by daily deluges of sugar. Served with hot-sweet sauce and piquant cucumber salad, here again are humble roots made heavenly.
A warning, though: The perfection of Pin Toh’s vegetables will not survive the microwave. Dine at the restaurant, or take food home and eat it straightaway; reheating it does not merely insult that perfection, but annihilates it. This is only fair. Some things, thank God, aren’t made to last.