Wherever you are on the spectrum of meat lover to vegan, you’ll find a thundering herd of options at Thai Elephant in San Luis Obispo.
Located in the historic Railroad District, Thai Elephant exudes a clean, casual warmth accented by dark wooden floors, high ceilings, and well-placed pieces of Asian artwork. Ample split-level seating is available inside — either at booths, tables, or the vintage bar — but the sprawling, shady patio is a favorite spot in the summertime.
Owner Anek Thammuenyong (who also operates the Thai Elephant in Atascadero) originally opened the restaurant as Vegan Spices Thai Cuisine about a year and a half ago. As the name suggests, the menu featured only tofu and soy meat alternatives as its protein options, and that dedication even extended to offering vegan beers, gluten-free beers and organic wines.
“No one else was doing that here,” said Thammuenyong, a veteran not only of Thai restaurant kitchens but also of food services at the University of California at Santa Barbara. “I thought it would be something different for San Luis.”
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Indeed it was, and was wholeheartedly embraced by vegans and vegetarians, even drawing regular patrons all the way from Santa Maria. However, the niche ultimately proved too narrow a business model, and about six months after opening, Thammuenyong “almost gave up.”
Then someone suggested that he combine the concepts of his two restaurants, keeping the most popular vegan dishes (plus the beers and wines) and bringing in the tried-andtrue menu, name and track record of Thai Elephant. Now, vegans and vegetarians can still order “soy chicken” and tofu as their proteins, while meat lovers have their choice of chicken, pork, beef, shrimp, calamari, fish and — at dinnertime — even duck.
Thammuenyong further explained that Thai curry sauces are naturally vegan already because they are made with coconut milk, not any kind of dairy. For other orders, the kitchen will forego the fish sauce typically used in the cuisine, and also use a substitute “oyster sauce” that’s derived from mushrooms. He already eschews monosodium glutamate (MSG) in his cooking “because I just don’t like it.”
Among the favorite vegan/vegetarian dishes at Thai Elephant are the sweet basil tofu (deep-fried tofu with a curry/coconut milk sauce and sweet basil atop mixed vegetables), and the pad Thai with soy chicken — one of the cuisine’s best known signature dishes that’s also already naturally vegan because it’s made with rice noodles instead of egg noodles.
The rest of the Thai Elephant menu unfolds just as you’d expect: from hot and sour tom kha kai chicken soup to satay chicken with Thai peanut dipping sauce, from green papaya salad to pineapple fried rice, from pan-fried pad see-ew flat noodles to yellow potato curry. Desserts include green tea ice cream or sweet sticky rice with mango.
Two other tasty dishes that started out on the specials board in Atascadero and have made their way onto the regular menu at both locations are Jungle Curry (a nice selection of mixed vegetables and basil in a green coconut curry sauce) and Pumpkin Curry (pumpkin, bell pepper and basil in red coconut curry sauce).
In addition to your proteins, Thai Elephant — like other such establishments — also lets you choose your heat spice level, and they will take you seriously. You can order your Spicy Noodles mild, but if you say you want your mussamun curry hot, prepare your taste buds for a wild ride!