.Hanloh Thai’s Menu Wows at Bad Animal

New culinary angle at downtown wine-book hybrid is a hit

It’s always a thrill tasting an exciting new menu. And that’s exactly what we experienced last week at Bad Animal at our first encounter with the masterful cooking of Lalita Kaewsawang and Mauricio Ortiz, the brains behind Hanloh Thai, which is now filling the tiny kitchen with remarkable flavors to match the avant-garde salon ambience. A creative playlist saturated the background as we joined diners sampling the eclectic wine list and provocative menu.

To join with feisty appetizers of Mieng (betel leaves with assorted condiments, $11) and Laab Moo (spiced pork wrapped in tender greens, $17) we chose three wines. A Slovenian orange Malvasia 2018 ($15), one of my go-to varietals on this list, worked its salt-spice magic from first sip. Another terrific choice was a 2021 Kadarka—a full-bodied, pinotesque red grape from the Hungarian winegrowing district of Szkekszard ($14). Our companion enjoyed his distinctive, unfiltered 2021 Annesanti “Ninfa del Nera” bianco, a blend of malvasia, grechetto and trebbiano from Umbria ($14). All the wines proved delightful partners for the dramatic cuisine created by the Hanloh chefs.

Presentation and service were outstanding throughout the meal, and it became abundantly clear that Bad Animal has, in its fourth year, hit its stride as a food and wine destination embedded in a bustling bookstore.

The first appetizer arrived, a plate with three large peppery betel leaves topped with bits of pungent lemongrass, cubes of plum, toasted coconut, peanuts and a glaze of amazing tamarind sauce. Each bite of the wrapped leaf took us through layers of flavor with terrific balance, showing off the skill of the chefs. Our second appetizer—offering minced pork loaded with herbs, fish sauce, lime and the kick of chili de arbol—was just as much fun to eat as the first. From a bouquet of emerald greens we selected our fresh leaf, filled it with the spiced pork and polished it off with a few bites. Just enough kick to clear the sinuses, but not enough to numb our tastebuds—and heaven with the wines.

Our shared entrees of two Thai classics were blatantly gorgeous. Arriving along with our order of exceptional jasmine rice ($4), the Tom Kha Gai ($23) was a masterpiece of balanced flavors and fragrant aromas. Coconut broth infused with generous slices of Mary’s chicken, lemongrass, tomatoes and oyster mushrooms were swirled with shreds of sorrel and chard, every bite exuding sweet heat. My favorite dish of the evening, Pak Ob Woonsen, arrived in clay pot dishes upon the top of which sat little bowls of a fiery bird’s eye chili and pineapple dressing (we licked these bowls clean). Inside the large pot lay a shimmering tangle of glass noodles, surrounded by luscious shiitake mushrooms, tofu and tender braised greens, inflected with sesame oil, dark soy sauce and ginger ($29). The long noodles were fun to try to manage, and we happily succumbed to the umami-intensive messiness. An outrageously fine dish that, once tasted, imprinted itself on my sensory consciousness. Tofu arrived inari-style, puffed up into soft pillows to better capture the dreamy sauce. I can barely believe I’m getting so excited about tofu, but this dish was transformative.

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The dessert—a bowl of shaved ice dotted with unripe melon, acrid adzuki beans and neon green pandan jelly—proved unworthy of the spectacular meal we’d just enjoyed. Perhaps the menu will change its dessert offering?

With Bad Animal’s Hanloh Thai menu, you’re in for a wonderful flavor odyssey. It’s already wildly popular, and rightfully so.

Bad Animal, 1011 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. badanimalbooks.com.

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