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Los Angeles Times

Sunday, December 31, 2023

The Best Dishes of 2023


Khao soi noodles

At Manaao Thai Comfort Food, there is always something new on the menu. There might be stir-fried red curry with shrimp and Thai eggplant one week, fluffy fried catfish the next. But each visit, my eyes still search for khao soi noodles. Engineer- turned-restaurateur Kanate Ungkasrithongkul makes a version of the creamy, yellow northern Thai curry that can be ordered with tender braised beef or brittle soft-shelled crab. During the pandemic, Ungkas- rithongkul started making the dishes he grew up eating in a small city two hours north of Bangkok, and friends and fam- ily encouraged him to open his own restaurant. His khao soi is among his best, with a rich, sweet broth flecked with bright red spots of chili and served with a nest of crispy egg noodle on top. Fresh egg noodles with gratifying chew settle at the bottom of the bowl while pickled red onions, sour mustard greens and a squeeze of lime juice add brightness. Order a bowl with the beef, along with whatever is new on the menu.

— Sarah Mosqueda

13842 NewportAve., Suite C, Tustin

(949) 818-8424


Los Angeles Times – OC Times – Daily Pilot

Sunday, August 13, 2023

Thai comfort food with a tie to home


Like most of us, engineer and web developer Kanate Ungkasrithongkul found himself making a lot more meals at home during the pandemic. But rather than proofing sourdough, Ungkasrithongkul began experimenting with the homecooked recipes from his childhood in Thailand, in a small city two hours north of Bangkok.

“I started looking at YouTube and trying new recipes,” said Ungkasrithongkul. “I liked to cook at home, but I never cooked professionally.”

It was always a dream for Ungkasrithongkul and his wife, Anita Lin, to own their own business, but they never considered opening a restaurant. As they continued to refine their recipes however, they started to give it some thought.

When Ungkasrithongkul tried his hand at his personal favorite, Thai boat noodles, he was more than pleased with the results.

“We thought, if we can make it this good at home, just imagine what we could do with a commercial set up,” said Ungkasrithongkul. “We said, ‘Yeah, I think it’s time.’”

The couple secured a small space in a strip mall at 13842 Newport Ave. in Tustin where they opened Manaao: Thai Comfort Food. The walls are lined with a pretty lime tree wallpaper, and figures from Disney/Pixar’s “WALL-E” greet customers at the hostess stand. It’s a film Ungkasrithongkul said he likes because “nobody dies.”

Manaao’s cozy atmosphere is the first thing that takes guests by surprise when entering the tiny restaurant in an unassuming space next door to a Yogurtland. The second thing is the food.
“We have small a menu so we can focus on the quality,’ said Ungkasrithongkul.

Dishes are thoughtful, delicious and unexpected. They have what Ungkasrithongkul calls “authentic flavors,” like holy basil, a menu item he said most reminds him of home.

Requesting different spice levels at a Thai restaurant is not typical in Thailand, and Ungkasrithongkul said some dishes, like holy basil, can only be made at one spice level: hot.

“It is a basic, simple stir fry, with ground pork or ground beef with garlic, chilis and holy basil,” said Ungkasrithongkul. “Most restaurants here don’t use holy basil, which has a totally different flavor profile.”

Holy basil’s flavor has been described as mix of licorice, peppermint and clove, different than the peppery sweet basil favored in America.

The crab fried rice on the other hand, isn’t spicy at all and is full of tender lumps of crab meat.

Pad Thai has the option of beef or shrimp, but not chicken which Ungkasrithongkul said is an addition that was popularized in the Western interpretation of Thai food.

“Our pad Thai is very close to what we have in Thailand,” he added. “The only thing that we do with chicken is fried chicken.”

Fried chicken wings are available as an appetizer, sticky with a fish sauce and palm sugar sauce.

Ungkasrithongkul’s favorite, Thai boat noodles, are also on the menu. The Thai-style noodle dish get its name from the vessel the noodles are sold from on Bangkok’s canals. Bold in flavor from the pig or cow blood used to thicken the soup, boat noodles usually contain garlic, dark soy sauce, bean sprouts, pickled bean curd, meatballs, pork and beef. Manaao’s version is also filled with boneless rib meat, rice noodles, sliced rib eye and meatballs.

The beverage menu also has some unexpected surprises. A Tom Yum beer from 7 Bangkok Craft Brewing Co. is a wheat ale inspired by tom yum soup with notes of lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves. Mr. Shmello!, a sour ale with guava, blueberry and marshmallow flavors from Anaheim’s Unsung Brewing Co., also recently joined the menu. The Thai iced tea is less sweet and served over nugget ice.

Dessert options include a house-made vegan coconut ice cream or the expected mango sticky rice, unexpectedly infused with pandan leaf, making it green in color and fragrant with vanilla flavor.

On a Wednesday afternoon, all the tables in the restaurant are full at lunch hour, with some customers waiting on to-go orders at the front. Ungkasrithongkul said they’ve been busy since they opened on day one, about four months ago.

“It’s mostly word of mouth,” he said.

Manaao opens for lunch at 11a.m. and closes at 3 p.m. before opening up for dinner at 4:30 p.m. During the 90 minutes they are closed, Ungkasrithongkul and his staff sit down to eat together. It is a daily ritual that reminds him why he went into the restaurant business. It is a chance to bring people together over food.

Ungkasrithongkul also believes it helps the team connect with Manaao’s version of Thai comfort food.

“To me comfort food is something that when you eat it, you feel happy. You feel full,” Ungkasrithongkul said. “It reminds you of home.”

Twitter: @SarahNMos