- Jet Tila, a Food Network star and restaurateur, shared the things he looks for in a Thai restaurant.
- He told Insider that he pays attention to everything, from what’s on the menu to how the tables are set.
- The chef said that chopsticks should only be part of the default table setting if it’s a noodle house.
Celebrity chef and restaurateur Jet Tila has spent his career and life around people running various cuisines across Asia.
In an interview about his appearance on the South Beach Food and Wine Festival and his association with Pei Wei restaurants, Tila told Insider that as the firstborn son of his immigrant parents, he essentially grew up in his family’s food business. Tila’s family opened the first Thai grocery store in Los Angeles in 1972, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Tila said that since she was 10 years old, she worked in the markets, restaurants and farms that were part of the growing business. She said that she was essentially raised in shops as her family could not afford any other form of childcare. But it wasn’t necessarily where he wanted to be when he was a kid.
“I would say the romantic answer is, ‘It was amazing and full of adventure,'” Tila said of her upbringing. “But to be honest, it was the last thing I wanted to do.”
Although he wanted to go out and play with friends, Tila said this unconventional training helped him develop a foundation for what has now become his own career.
“I believe in the 10,000 hour rule to become an expert,” he said. “I finished probably 20,000 hours when I was 22 years old.”
Growing up in the business, studying at various culinary schools, and traveling, the Food Network star has discovered that there are certain benchmarks of Thai restaurants that, to him, indicate whether the people behind the restaurant are serving up something delicious. .
Pay attention to the table layout
Tila said that the first thing she pays attention to happens before the food comes out: it’s how the table is set.
“If a Thai restaurant is set up with a spoon and fork, that tells me they’re a little more authentic because the proper way to eat Thai food, you know, with jasmine rice, is spoon and fork,” he said.
While the fork and spoon are an indication to him that a restaurant is trying to channel a more traditional Thai style of food, the chopsticks do the opposite. “If they’re automatically set up with chopsticks, and they’re not a noodle house, that generally tells me they’re pandering more to an American-style restaurant,” he said.
Watch how they treat the presence of spices.
“I think the indicators are how sweet the food is,” Tila said, adding that the really good measures of a Thai restaurant would be their curry and whether a server or menu offers different levels of spice.
Tila said that a good curry dish should be “nice and thick” with a substantial amount of heat, and that’s a good sign if someone asks how spicy you want a dish. “Usually they will say: ‘Our heat is In fact hot,'” he said as he explained what a spicy level question would look or sound like.
Less common, more regional dishes may indicate a good menu
If you’re studying the menu and see some dishes that aren’t commonly found in other Thai restaurants in the United States—he mentioned khao soi and mango salad as examples—that could be a great sign, Tila said, though it’s not a guarantee.
“The problem is,” he added, “anyone could put on a lesser-known dish and still execute it poorly.”
Likewise, he said, you might see something non-traditionally Thai on the menu and think that means the food is bad. While it can certainly be a marker of a confused chef, it can also be indicative of a creative or well-versed one.
“I know of a few Thai restaurants in Los Angeles that do teriyaki, and they’re still terrific Thai restaurants,” he said.
Ultimately this comes down to knowing and trusting your chef. “Pei Wei serves Korean, Thai and Chinese food at the same time,” Tila said of the restaurant chain with which he is a partner. “But I have the credibility to take you there.”
In general, even with all his advice, the cookbook author recommends giving any restaurant at least two tries before you make up your mind on it, unless you have a really terrible experience. “And there’s no excuse, obviously, for bad service and bad food,” he added. But if he’s “undecided” or not sure, he suggests going back a second time.