I do have a soft spot for small, curious restaurants hidden in the back of our many malls, mini-malls, strip malls and so forth. And Sweet Rice certainly fills the bill. It’s in the back of the Pacific Square Shopping Center on West Redondo Beach Boulevard just east of Western in Gardena. Its neighbors include everything from a family friendly Carrow’s, to a Sea Empress Seafood, a Pizza Machine, a Tea Station, a Happy Lemon and a Tokyo Central Market, should you feel the need to do a little food shopping after you’ve eaten.
In the midst of all this abundance, Sweet Rice is worth finding. For in a city blessed with many Thai restaurants, Sweet Rice is pretty much unlike any other. As the menu states, the specialties of the house are “Thai Breakfast & Dessert” — with an emphasis on the former. And we are further reassured that, “Our recipes are designed to capture original Thai flavors.”
I have only a vague memory of eating breakfast in Bangkok — the restaurant where the servers all deliver your food on roller skates comes to mind, along with the seafood market where you selected your protein, brought it to a line of woks, and had a cook prepare it as you liked. I must have eaten breakfast, but all I can recall are bowls of rice with tea. At Sweet Rice, there’s far more that’s memorable.
The most memorable of the breakfast dishes, for me at least, are the several Thai omelettes — “Kao Kai Jeow.” There are just three on the menu, but once you add the numerous options in each, there are actually nine. You can trick up two of the three with chicken, pork, shrimp or crab (options decidedly not found at IHOP). There are three egg omelettes, made with onions, scallions and cilantro in one version, to which Thai basil and jalapeno is added in another. The third omelette option is veggie. All three come with rice on the side. Because rice is as essential as the eggs.
And the omelettes are wonderful — a dish you’ll want to make at home, though they’ll probably never taste as good. (I’ve long given up trying to replicate restaurant dishes. They never come out quite right.)
Another breakfast dish that definitely smacks of morning meal is the Thai porridge — the “jok” — which is a standard morning item throughout Asia. It’s rice porridge, served in two very similar versions — the gruel flavored with ground pork, a “century” egg (which actually isn’t a century old, but is processed to make it seem aged), a poached egg, scallions, ginger crispy noodles — and the deep-fried breadstick called “patongo,” which sits somewhere between a churro and a doughnut. (A secondary version is almost exactly the same, except for an increased amount of pork.)
From there, the menu meanders into what may be breakfast dishes, but they’ll also do just fine for lunch and dinner. (Considering that Sweet Rice doesn’t open till late morning, that’s eminently sensible.)
A good deal of the main dishes are soups. There are three rice soups (“kao tom”) — one with shrimp, one with pork, one with chicken, all with chrysanthemum greens, cilantro, scallions — and a patongo on the side.
There’s a central section of seven noodle soups — different types of noodles, different levels of spice, different ingredients. Order the spicy Boat Noodles and your broth will contain thin rice noodles, sliced beef, beef stew, beef meatballs, tripe, pork rinds, beansprouts, chili roasted garlic oil, Chinese celery and the elegantly named “blood broth.” It’s a very busy bowl of soup, if you ask me.
The chicken & shrimp wonton soup is a lot simpler. Though even that soup comes with pork, fish balls and fish cake. So…not that much simpler.
There are a pair of curries — one yellow, the other green, and both spicy, the yellow available with chicken only, the green with chicken or beef. The green is made even more breakfasty with the addition of a hard-cooked egg on top. I don’t know about you, but my morning eggs define my breakfast habits. So, finding egg on Sweet Rice Thai dishes make them breakfast for me as well. Curiously, on Fridays only, there’s a dish called kao mun kai, which is poached chicken with cucumber and cilantro. Why it’s one day a week, I do not know. But…there is is.
And what about the dish of the restaurant title? You’ll find it in the wondrous mango & sticky rice, such a good dish, one of my favorite desserts in the world. There’s also homemade coconut ice cream, flavored with any of the 12 toppings. Jackfruit and toddy palm (the fruit of which gives us palm sugar and palm wine. I, of course, prefer the Thai iced tea or ice coffee. Though the Thai tea with lime juice is sure tempting. And like the menu says, “Original Thai Flavors.” Without the heat and humidity.
Merrill Shindler is a Los Angeles-based freelance dining critic. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rating: 2.5 stars
Address: Pacific Square Shopping Center, 1630 W. Redondo Beach Blvd., Gardena
Cuisine: Thai Eclectic
When: Lunch and dinner, Wednesday through Monday
Details: Tea and soft drinks; no reservations
Atmosphere: Tiny Thai eclectic café — in the back of a sprawling Gardena shopping mall, complete with a hotel, a Carrow’s and a Chinese seafood house — offers down-home Thai cooking and a section of Thai breakfast dishes, not often found at our many Siamese carbon copies.
Prices: About $12 per person
Suggested dishes: 9 Kao Kai Jeow Thai Omelettes ($9.99-$12.99), 2 Thai Porridge Dishes ($8.99-$9.99), 3 Kao Tom Rice Soups ($9.99-$12.99), Curried Kao Soi Noodles ($10.99), 7 Noodle Soups ($9.99-$10.99), 3 Thai Curry Dishes ($10.99), Kao Mun Kai Poached Chicken (Fridays only; $10.99)
Cards: MC, V