Hanloh Thai menu impresses at Bad Animal

It’s always a pleasure to taste an exciting new menu. And that’s exactly what we experienced last week at bad animal our first encounter with the masterful cuisine of Lalita Kaewsawang and Mauricio Ortizthe brain behind thai hanloh, which now fills the tiny kitchen with remarkable flavors to match the fashion-forward vibe of the living room. A creative playlist saturated the background as we joined diners tasting the eclectic wine list and provocative menu.

To accompany fiery appetizers of Mieng (betel leaves with assorted condiments, $11) and Laab Moo (spicy pork wrapped in tender greens, $17) we chose three wines. A 2018 Malvasia Slovenian Orange ($15), one of my favorite varietals on this list, worked its salty-spicy magic from the first sip. Another terrific pick was a 2021 Kadarka, a full-bodied, pinotesque red grape from Hungary’s Szkekszard wine district ($14). Our companion enjoyed his distinctive, unfiltered 2021 Annesanti “Ninfa del Nera” bianco, a blend of Malvasia, Grechetto and Trebbiano from Umbria ($14). All of the wines proved delicious 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, in its fourth year, had taken off as a food and wine destination integrated into a bustling bookstore.

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

Our shared starters of two Thai classics were obviously beautiful. Arriving with our exceptional jasmine rice order ($4), the Tom Kha Gai ($23) was a masterpiece of balanced flavors and fragrant aromas. The coconut broth infused with generous slices of Mary’s chicken, lemongrass, tomatoes and oyster mushrooms was swirled with shreds of sorrel and chard, each bite exuding a gentle heat. My favorite evening dish Pak Ob Woonsen, arrived in earthenware dishes on top of which sat little bowls of a fiery bird’s eye chili and pineapple vinaigrette (we licked those bowls clean). Inside the large pot was a shimmering tangle of glass noodles, surrounded by succulent shiitake mushrooms, tofu and tender braised greens, inflected with sesame oil, dark soy sauce and ginger ($29) . The long noodles were fun to try and manage, and we thankfully succumbed to the umami-intensive mess. A dish of outrageous delicacy which, once tasted, imprinted itself on my sensory consciousness. The tofu arrived inari style, puffed up in soft pillows to better capture the dreamy sauce. I can hardly believe I got so excited about tofu, but this dish was transformative.

The dessert – a bowl of shaved ice sprinkled with green melon, pungent adzuki beans and neon green pandan jelly – proved unworthy of the spectacular meal we had just enjoyed. Perhaps the menu will change its dessert offer?

With Bad Animal’s Hanloh Thai menu, you’re ready for a wonderful flavor odyssey. It’s already hugely popular, and rightly so.

bad animal, 1011 Cedar Street, Santa Cruz. badanimalbooks.com.

Freeda S. Scott