If we count the Toni's Taste of Thai truck in front of Toni's diner in Arcata (1901 Heindon Road), there are eight Southeast Asian restaurants in Humboldt. That's only one fewer than the number of sushi restaurants, mathematically proving that Southeast Asian cuisine is pretty damn popular. If you doubt, ponder this: There is a pho.com site dedicated to listing every restaurant in America that serves the Vietnamese rice noodle soup. Further investigation reveals that there is no taco.com, no bacon.com and no ravioli.com. There is, however, a pizza.com. So, in the world of Internet foodies, pho is right up there with pizza, and deservedly so.
The majority of Southeast Asian establishments in Humboldt serve both Thai and Vietnamese dishes, such as curries, pho and spring rolls. Pho Thien Long (307 Fourth St., Eureka) offers dishes from both countries, with a big emphasis on the delicious, piping hot pho. For gluten-free diners, pho is a miracle for your mouth. While American food companies have tried their best with quinoa and rice noodles, Asian cooks have long mastered rice noodle technology. The Pho Ga at Pho Thien Long is listed as a "Rice Noodle Chicken Soup," but it's so much more. For starters, the bowl is as big as your head, and unless you're a competitive eating champion or you just recently returned from exile on a deserted island, the soup is pretty much impossible to finish without going pho-matose. And it isn't your grandma's chicken noodle soup with its combo of fresh cilantro, broth, chicken and optional Thai peppers (if you want to destroy your mouth). The barbecue pork spring rolls ($6.25) are an appetizer, but they could be a meal in themselves. Vermicelli rice noodles, fresh chopped lettuce and bits and nibbles of barbecued pork are all wrapped in a thin layer of soft rice paper. The best part is the peanut sauce; you will instantly become a shameless double-dipper. You're going to want to polish this off with Thai tea ($3.50). A blend of iced tea and condensed milk, it's on the cusp of too sweet without going over the edge.
Arcata's Bencharong Thai House (600 F St.) primarily offers Thai cuisine. Their menu focuses on pad Thais, curries and beautifully plated appetizers. For the gluten-intolerant, the cooks at Bencharong will make any of their dishes without soy sauce upon request. This opens up nearly the entire menu, save for the fried appetizers. The Pattaya Rolls ($8) are still an appetizer option, though. Similar to spring rolls in general concept only, the delicate pouches of pork, peanuts, garlic, Thai pepper and veggies easily go down in one bite, the individual flavors emerging in layers. The pineapple Padd Saam Rode stir-fry ($10-$16 depending on protein) with tomatoes, cucumber, bell peppers, yellow onion, cilantro and sweet and sour sauce (no wheat flour!) is an easy choice as an entrée. Like other entrées, you can order it anywhere on the spectrum from non-spicy to "Thai spicy" (when asked what that means, the waitress smiles and shakes her head). Push yourself a little — the heat will cut through the sweetness of the sauce.
When the sushi bomb hit, Humboldt went from having a couple of established places to a slew of sushi selections. Now Eureka and Arcata are filled to the brim with Southeast Asian cuisine, full-up with pho, brimming with bun — enjoy it.