Lers Ros, a popular hole-in-the-wall Thai restaurant in San Francisco, is so hot that the chef-owner, Tom Silarorn recently opened a new location, after just 3 years. The fact that the new restaurant is in the hip Hayes Valley, and only 5 minutes away from its original location, piqued my interest.
Lers Ros’s website is full of raving reviews. A number of restaurant critics, including Michael Bauer, the restaurant critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, were impressed with Ler Ros.
I checked out the menu and was ecstatic. Their menu offers over 100 dishes, common in Thai restaurants in Thailand, but not in the west. Since, Lers Ros is translated literally as “Superb Flavors”, I was eager to see if Lers Ros lived up to its Thai name.
We walked in at about 5:30, the restaurant was half full and filled quickly soon after we arrived. We had 7 dishes for our party; Fried Tofu, Grilled Pork Shoulder, Sticky Rice, Stinky Beans with Shrimp, Gang Som Cha-om Khai Tod, Roast Duck Laab and jasmine rice.
I walked out of the restaurant knowing that I had a great grilled pork shoulder and some nearly great dishes. Read on to hear a review from a Thai who loves eating Thai food aimed at Thai food connoisseurs and other Thais.
Fried Tofu: The fried tofu was great however, the sauce could be better. What makes or breaks this dish is the sauce. The bland tofu can benefit from more ground peanuts and some chopped cilantro. A tamarind based dipping sauce would have been “superb flavors”.
Grilled Pork Shoulder: The pork was grilled to perfection, tender and flavorful. This sauce was one of the best I have had. I detected fish sauce, ground chili pepper, lime juice, pickled fish (pla rah), sugar, red onion, green onion and cilantro. The meat and the sauce together are a treat.
Sticky Rice: A small ball of sticky rice came in an individual traditional northeastern bamboo container. The rice was hard, with a completely dry center, like a geode. When you steam sticky rice, the rice needs to be moved around while cooking to evenly get the steam. I suspect that this spot did not get moved, so it didn’t get properly steamed. When we informed the waitress, she promptly gave us a new one, which was fine.
Stinky Beans with Shrimp: Stir fried stinky beans with shrimp in red curry paste is a Southern dish. With stinky beans, it’s either you love it or you hate it; it is one of my favorite dishes. The smell of the stinky beans can stop you in your tracks. However, the nutty flavor with the distinct aroma of stinky beans is what southerners crave. At Lers Ros, this stir fried was right on target with all flavors, except that it was too salty.
Gang Som Cha-om Khai Tod: Lers Ros gets 10 out of 10 for offering this dish which is near and dear to Thais. A sour curry base has garlic, shallot, dried chili peppers, salt and shrimp paste. The curry is flavored with ground cooked fish, fish sauce, palm sugar and tamarind. Fish or shrimp traditionally provide the meat. Several vegetable combinations can go into this sour curry.
One of the popular sour curry additions is acacia omelette. Young acacia leaves and beaten eggs are fried until lightly brown on both sides. The omelette is cut into small pieces and dropped into the sour curry. The characteristic of a good acacia omlette is thick and full of acacia leaves so that it soaks up the curry like a sponge. The flavor of the curry can vary depending on your taste. Lime juice can be added for an extra sharp taste. The sour curry should be sour, slightly salty and clean flavored with a hint of sugar to round the salty and sour together.
However, Lers Ros’s flavor on the sour curry was uncomfortably salty. Overall, the smell of the dish and top note flavors were not the clean fresh smell and taste that you get from curry made from scratch. The acacia omlette pieces looked like they’d been sitting in the curry for more than a day. When you cut a piece, it was no longer green inside but pale and mushy and broke apart more easily than it should if fresh. There was also napa cabbage added, which is an abnormal choice for the dish that, flavorwise, serves no purpose.
I was also surprised to see kaffir lime leaves in the sour curry. Realizing that Chef Tom hailed from Chonburi, the sour curry with kaffir lime leaves made sense. (Chonburi is a province along gulf of Thailand, south of Bangkok. Pattaya is probably the most famous town in Chonburi.) Sour curry from Chonburi has kaffir lime leaves, but, traditionally other regions don’t add kaffir lime leaves and thus most Thais don’t expect sour curry in restaurants to have kaffir lime leaves. Since the choice of style was so unexpected, I would have appreciated it if the menu had noted Chonburi Style.
Peter said that he smelled tomato in the sour curry. I disagreed with him until I opened the leftover container and the first waft was a very tomatoey.
Roast Duck Laab: The appearance was right on, no weird western ingredients like carrots. The first bite sent me looking for water because it was so salty, as if the cook had forgotten that roast duck had once been seasoned and the laab didn’t need the normal amounts of seasoning that you’d add for fresh meat.
Rice: I expect that a respected Thai restaurant would serve jasmine rice, which goes so well with Thai food. At Lers Ros, I’m not certain that the rice was jasmine rice. I found 2 different grains, short and fat ones and long ones.
Kudos for Lers Ros for helping to push diners to other great Thai dishes. The service was solid, attentive and pleasant. The prices were very reasonable. The dishes were so close to being good, yet each dish, for relatively minor reasons, missed the opportunity. Tightening up on seasonings and Lers Ros will be a heaven for a Thai like me.
**Another review from another Thai in Yelp.com from Dom G.
phone: 415-874-9661fax: 415-829-3953open daily: 10am - 11pm