A very good thing
After nearly two decades, Saladang remains a shelter from the squall
By Erica Wayne 09/12/2012
When Saladang first opened almost 20 years ago, I had no idea what it was. The ad that ran for months in the Pasadena Weekly had the words “Saladena” and “Pasadang” cleverly juxtaposed and intertwined. Every time I looked at it, I knew it had to mean something, probably something important. But, for the life of me, I couldn’t keep my mind on it long enough to find out.
After staring at it week after week, the ad began to prey on me. So I finally got out a magnifying glass and squinted a little at the teensy print that looked a lot like circular lace running around the abstract design at the top of the ad.
“Hot damn!” I said to myself. “It’s a new Thai restaurant.” How was I supposed to have figured that out?”
My then-editor was unsympathetic.
“Maybe you should have your eyes checked or take a course in commercial design at Art Center. You should have known about it anyway. Dan [O’Heron] mentioned it in his last column. Why don’t you go over and review it? It’ll make you feel better.”
So, after deciphering the miniature address and the squished numbers beneath the tiny phone symbol, I called and made a reservation. And I was glad I did, since Saladang turned out to be one of the most interesting Thai restaurants I’d ever tried.
The menu (which hasn’t changed much since the restaurant’s debut) explains the name: “In Thailand, just walking along The Path often requires respite from the sweltering day, especially when caught by an afternoon squall. All over the countryside you will see SALA, a specific kind of gazebo-like structure for this purpose ... for the welfare and hospitality of all who seek shelter and refreshment. Sala-Dang, or red sala, is for your refreshment and relaxation. Please enjoy your visit and your meal.” The message is signed by the owner: “Sincerely, ‘Dang’ Vattanatham.”
I should have known it was a Zen thing. And, going on two decades later, it’s still appropriate. “The Path” we’ve been walking has been pretty rough for some of us lately, and there’ve been a lot of local, national and even planetary squalls. Meanwhile Saladang — cool, elegant and simple with a hot, elegant and complex cuisine — really does have a salutary, sheltering, refreshing effect, even though, to my way of thinking, it looks more like an art gallery than a gazebo.
But that’s quibbling. Any restaurant that has menus in indescribable violet-mauve-lavender and peach-rose-cadmium hues and ends your meal with tiny jelly-filled butter mints wrapped in pastel cellophane and tied with ribbon starts out with an “A+” from me. Saladang’s ceilings are extremely high, the façade almost completely made up of plate glass panels and the surfaces hard enough to send sound (of which there is quite a lot) reverberating throughout the dining area.
And, while the rock/jazz/new wave blend of music hovering above the audible yum-yum noises of hordes of happy diners isn’t exactly what I’d pick if it were my restaurant, I’m more than willing to live with it in order to savor the rest of the Saladang experience, which hasn’t lost one bit of its appeal over the years.
Unusual dishes like “pun klib” (chicken and peanut dumplings for $7.95); saladang salad (grated green apple, chicken and peanut sauce for $7.95); “miang salmon” (smoked salmon with coconut dressing for $9.95); stir-fried ginger and onion with green onion ($6.95); crab pot (shrimp and crab with mung bean noodles for $14.95); and desserts like “khao neow dum piag” and “kanom maw gang” (black rice pudding and baked mung bean cake, both $3.95) can make a Saladang meal an adventure as well as a repast.
Fine versions of old favorites like “prik king” (curry with green beans and meat of choice at $7.95 for chicken, pork or beef and $10.95 for shrimp or scallops); “panang” (coconut cream curry with peas and meat ($7.95/$10.95); eggplant with black bean sauce, chili and basil leaves ($7.95); curry fried rice ($6.95); barbecue beef with sesame seeds ($8.95); and tom yum gai (hot and sour soup with chicken, unfortunately, only served in single portions for $4.95) are equally delicious.
During the past two decades, we’ve become regulars, although I must confess being torn between the equal charms of Saladang and its sister and next-door neighbor Saladang Song, whose menu focuses a bit more on snacks and salads. What fascinates me is that, unlike many popular restaurants, Saladang has hardly changed either its menu or its prices which, for the most part, have risen merely a dollar or two over the years. Only the whole deep-fried catfish has more than doubled (from $11.95 to $24.95), but the catfish filet with spicy wine sauce is a reasonable $10.95.
All those who managed to discover the restaurant during its infancy, despite the abstruse, esoteric quality of those early ads, must continue their patronage, since we’ve never found the restaurant less than full. And new patrons abound, much to our chagrin, on weekend evenings, when eager customers mill around the entrance awaiting their summons to what is a never less than excellent meal. Nowadays, the few ads I see for Saladang and Song are simple and easy to read: name, address and phone number. Frankly, nothing more is needed.
363 S. Fair Oaks Ave.,
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