Just finished a nice meal and hopped into a cab back to our hotel -- a relatively short walk . . . if my husband wasn't so full that I questioned our collective ability to get him back up the hill! (And in SF, there is always a hill involved, no matter where you're going.) He doesn't overindulge this way often. It's been many years since he left a restaurant with a "Buddha belly."
The physical space of this place isn't remarkable, but it's clean, friendly, and actually staffed by Thai people. Always a good sign. A few minutes after we sat down, a party of 3 older Thais sat down at a nearby table, chatting in Thai; although I could only understand a fraction of their words, it spoke volumes that Zen Yai is staffed and patronized by actual Thai people. During the course of our meal, I also noticed that the Thai staff also sat down to enjoy bowls of something from their own kitchen at a table near the kitchen door. Having worked in restaurants myself, this is important to note because people who work at low quality kitchens often avoid their own food; people who make good food are happy to have some for themselves.
We started with Thai Iced Tea (nice) and chicken satay for me and my 8-yr-old (good). I'd prefer a bit more coconut milk marination to get that subtle hint of vanilla, but Zen Yai's version is more of a mild yellow curry, still tame enough for my white-bread upbringing and a little boy.
The satay's peanut dipping sauce, however, was probably the best version of it that I've ever had. Thick and complex. I'd buy a bottle of it if possible. I seriously envisioned what other things could be dipped in it as I sat there. I've never done that before.
My husband, having lived in Thailand and favoring extra-spicy Lao street food there, started with the Sum Tum (papaya salad) and sticky rice. Zen Yai offers the traditional Thai version, which he said was good, but he noted that it lacked the usual green beans, and he was slightly disappointed that they couldn't offer the Lao version, which apparently includes some kind of extra seafood and secret ingredient. That's exactly a big criticism of Zen Yai; he's only able to find his preferred Lao version now and then. It's too spicy for me, so I don't quite understand the intricacies of the differences.
Next up for him was the Boat Noodles, which are only listed on a blackboard written in Thai, so only some people will know to ask for them. Hubby said the small $2.50 bowl was a good side-dish size, and it was authentic compared to Boat Noodles served to him in Thailand.
The child and I shared some Chicken Pad See Ew, our go-to order in Thai restaurants. I understand that this dish is considered by Thais to be bland; it's something they serve to children in Thailand -- sort of their (lower-fat) version of the ubiquitous mac-n-cheese that we plate up for kids here while the grownups eat something more interesting. I don't really care. I just know I generally like it, and I frequently split an order with my youngest.
Zen Yai does a very good Pad See Ew. Some places make it slightly sweet, presumably as part of it's historical aim to please children, but I prefer it without the sweetness. Zen Yai gave me a huge, wonderfully meaty plate of big wide tender noodles, thin juicy slices of white meat chicken, and fresh dark green broccoli in a thick savory sauce. It took me back to a special meal cooked for us years ago by a former cook to the Thai Royal Family.
I ate all I could, the boy ate a good helping, and yet together, we didn't finish half the plate.
Meanwhile, the husband dug into a large bowl of duck noodle soup. This is his favorite Thai dish, but few places offer it near our home in South Jersey. It was aromatic and looked appetizing, and frankly, I even don't care much for duck, but it still looked inviting to me. It was a darker broth surrounding thin noodles, topped with vegetables and seasonings, and crowned with a sliced, beautifully-roasted duck breast. My husband said the taste was wonderful, but he wished it included more veggies. I'd chalk that up as a minor request since it's a dish that he gets so rarely, let alone so well presented, and taken "with a grain of salt" after he ate so much that it looks like he's suddenly carrying around a pillow under his shirt. You don't get a temporary Buddha belly without chowing down pretty hard.
I'd definitely eat here again. Another example of going where the locals go to find good eats. If you want good Thai, follow the Thais in San Francisco to the edge of the Tenderloin, right near the ginormous whale mural, and fill your tummy at Zen Yai.
Own or manage this property? Claim your listing for free to respond to reviews, update your profile and much more.