I don't know if you know, but the best Thai food in California is not served in restaurants that are featured in Zagat or reviewed in newspapers. Indeed, the more popular Thai establishments that people blow a culinary load over are really not all that great. For example, out in the San Gabriel Valley where my mother lives, Saladang in Pasadena, which is the gold standard that restaurants even in upscale neighborhoods aspire to, is painfully overrated.
My mother and I have found some Thai food treasures in strip malls tucked away on side streets that absolutely eclipse the competition. And I bet there's the kind of amazing Thai food that I'm talking about in a strip mall near you. It may take some hit-and-miss investigation, but, believe me, it'll be worth it.
I have a couple theories as to why strip mall Thai food is so damn good. For starters, these small Thai joints really can't compete with larger restaurants, so they have to work twice as hard to ensure that the food is stellar and that it draws repeat business. Also, these small restaurants are mostly owned by immigrants (their Thai culinary expertise is in their bones) whose American dream is tied so closely to the success of their restaurants that you can taste it in every dish. Furthermore, Thai people are as cheap as the Chinese (yes, I have both Thai and Chinese blood in me), so you'll never find my mother, for example, plunking down the $10-and-up required for a plate of, say, Pad Thai at places like the aforementioned Saladang. Take a quick peek inside a restaurant like that, and you'll also notice a sea of white people, which means the kitchen is steering their food in the direction of white taste buds. (Anybody who's eaten Thai food cooked for white people and then tried food from, say, a Thai temple knows what I'm talking about and knows that there is a huge difference.)
My mother and I swear that the best Thai food in Southern California is at a place called Happy Thai located in a strip mall in El Monte—yes, El Monte! (9961 Valley Boulevard, El Monte, CA 91731, to be exact. The number is 626.579.9508. Yes, they do to-go orders, and, yes, they cater.) Those of you who are unfortunate enough to ever have to pass through El Monte are actually fortunate enough to be able to swing by this place. All the cooks are pretty damn great, but the owner, Nancy, is the best. To watch her explain her philosophy of cooking, which encompasses carefully putting her heart into every dish, explains it all.
Dishes of note are som tom (green papaya salad—ask for a side of cabbage), baked fish (incredibly good), spicy deep fried catfish, pla goong (shrimp salad), tom yum talay (lemongrass soup with seafood), pad thai, thod mun pla (fish cakes), lad na (rice noodles, soaked in gravy), pad se-ew (rice noodles, dry), and—this is a specialty—fried rice with salted fish.
Ask for spoons 'cuz that's how you eat Thai food, white people!