Thai Hot Restaurant

Wish You Were Here!

Restaurateurs with roots around the world are cooking up authentic and cleverly tweaked classics around the Coachella Valley.

Lizbeth Scordo Current PSL, Restaurants

Thai Hot Restaurant

Thai Hot restaurant in Indio makes crispy pork and roasted duck specialties and soup.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MOLLIE KIMBERLING

Greater Palm Springs draws visitors for a winsome variety of reasons: dreamy weather, stunning scenery, outdoor activities, midcentury modern architecture, popular festivals, and, of course, poolside cocktails and R&R. Once in town, they are often surprised to find that the region is home to an increasingly diverse population that’s creating an international food scene. Whether you’re looking for old-school chicken Parm, authentic Thai street food, or a fresh twist on Latin American fare, you can eat your way around the world without straying too far off Highway 111.
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Chef Sam, one of four Thai Hot owners.
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THAILAND

Thai Hot Restaurant, Indio

If you’ve ever dined on Thai food, you’ve probably indulged in pad thai, that ubiquitous sweet, sour, and savory stir-fried noodle dish. As with most Thai restaurants, it’s one of the most popular dishes at Thai Hot, but the foursome who opened the restaurant earlier this year hope their customers will become more adventurous. “We’re offering other menu items they maybe haven’t seen, like crispy pork and roasted duck — that’s street food in Thailand,” says co-owner Joe Phongpreecha, who was born in Bangkok. “Customers still stick with what they know as Thai food, but we do see sales of other things, especially if we actively promote it.”

Three of the four owners who also serve as chefs attended culinary school in Thailand before working in hotels and restaurants there and thus bring a mix of specialties from their home country, sourcing all herbs and spices from Asian suppliers.

The result is a menu that toggles between classic curries and stir-fries and lesser-known specialties (at least in America), like a slow-cooked pork hock, Northern-style herb sausage, fried mussel pancakes, and a crab-and-egg omelet. Yes, there’s mango sticky rice (when mango is in season and super sweet), but there’s also bualoy, a colorful and creamy coconut milk-based dessert “soup,” reminiscent of retro childhood cereal.

“We get lots of Thai Americans and Thai natives who come in,” Phongpreecha says, “and we often hear, ‘I haven’t had this dish in so long. I’ve missed it.’”

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Ouzo is used to flambé the shrimp appetizer at Koutouki Greek Estiatorio.
GREECE

Koutouki Greek Estiatorio, Palm Desert

This bustling, 7-year-old Greek restaurant is as authentic as it gets. Owner and chef Chris St.Denis began learning the basics of cooking the country’s cuisine from his Greek father-in-law, a longtime chef and restaurateur, when he was 17. He has been cooking in Greek restaurants for the last two decades. The menu focuses on traditional dishes, including seafood-centric plates like both a hot and cold octopus and whole grilled branzino; classic dips, including housemade hummus and tzatziki; and national specialties of flaky spanakopita and rich beef and veggie moussaka. But the most popular dishes here — both lamb entrées — aren’t at all common in Greece. “North Americans always assume that Greeks eat a lot of lamb, but that’s actually false,” St.Denis says. “It’s very expensive in Greece, so typically they only eat it at Christmas and Easter.”

But he’s happy to give customers what they want, slow-roasting a lamb shoulder for eight hours until it is fall-off-the-bone tender, as well as offering grilled lamb chops. “They’re easily our biggest sellers, by far,” he says

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Grilled lamb chops are popular at Koutouki, but less so in Greece, says owner/chef Chris St.Denis.
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Despite the menu’s heavy traditional slant, St.Denis has created a few of his own dishes, utilizing Greek ingredients in new ways. His shrimp appetizer, for example, uses ouzo, an anise-flavored aperitif that’s widely consumed in Greece, to flambé the prawns and garlic, giving the dish a slightly sweet flavor. Similarly, the restaurant’s Athenian mussels are cooked in a sauce made with tomatoes and retsina, a Greek white wine made with pine resin. “It’s something different, but it’s still very Greek,” he says, “and encompasses a lot of Greece into one dish.”
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mexico

El Pecado Crafted Mexican Food, Coachella

Diners have their pick of Mexican restaurants in the Coachella Valley. That’s why Rosie Ayon, owner of El Pecado, set out to create a venue completely different from the rest. “I didn’t want to be like your typical Mexican restaurant. I wanted to modernize everything,” says Ayon, who was inspired by the environments at Javier’s Restaurant and Red O Restaurant in Newport Beach but has kept her prices competitive with other restaurants in Coachella. “The look, the aesthetic, and the customer service are different from anything on this side of the valley.”

Her menu includes twists on well-known Mexican dishes like birria, stewed goat meat, which comes atop a bowl of soupy ramen as well as stuffed inside a grilled cheese sandwich. The mole she makes to top the shredded chicken enchiladas is infused with local dates, and esquite is dusted with traditional cotija but also plated with sizzling shishito peppers. Many offerings barely have a Mexican bent at all, like the green bean fries with a chipotle dipping sauce, ricotta pancakes, and a berry and blue cheese salad.

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Rosie Ayon’s El Pecado offers veggie-forward tacos and green bean fries in addition to traditional classics.
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Others are rooted in family history.

Until she was 13, Ayon lived with her grandmother, a migrant fieldworker from the Mexican state of Sinaloa who taught her to make El Pecado’s veggie-forward tacos, including the calabaza (grilled squash with sautéed onion) and the grilled poblano rajas tacos, both available on flour tortillas, as lettuce wraps, or with handmade corn tortillas derived from masa made on-site.

“When she worked in the fields, she would make tacos, package them in little thermals, and that’s what they ate during lunch, and that’s [where] my vegetarian tacos come from,” Ayon says. “Meat was expensive, so they used vegetables.”

While diners will find some more familiar dishes like chilaquiles and tacos of carnitas and carne asada, Ayun prides herself on delivering visually pleasing plates. That might mean drizzles of colorful sauces and sprinklings of bright microgreens. But her No. 1 rule of aesthetics: Rice and beans always come on the side to let the dish shine. “It’s not just about the recipes but how we’re going to plate the food,” she says. “I believe first you eat with your eyes. At my restaurant, when they bring you your plate, you’re like, ‘Wow,’ before you even eat. That’s what makes us different.”

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The bandeja Paisa at Mi Cultura includes steak, pork belly, sausage, fried plantain, and fried egg.
COLOMBIA AND PERU

Mi Cultura, Palm Desert

If you’ve never eaten Colombian food and can’t name a single dish that originated in the South American nation, you’re exactly who Jonathan Moreno hopes will dine at his restaurant, Mi Cultura.
“We are the first Colombian restaurant in the whole valley,” says Moreno, who is half Colombian. “We’re preparing food that you can only get in L.A. or Miami.”
While his Colombian offerings include classics — handmade chorizo con arepas (a grilled cornmeal cake); kitchen-sink-style badeja Paisa platters of steak, pork belly, rice, beans, salad, fried egg, and plantains; and plump twice-fried green plantains — he has added an even larger section of fare from Peru, his mother’s native country. That means Peruvian classics like ceviche marinated in leche de tigre and the flavorful rotisserie chicken pollo a la brasa, as well as Peruvian plates showcasing global influences. (Peru’s culinary culture has been heavily influenced by European and Asian immigrants.)

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There’s lomo saltado, Peruvian rice stir-fried with chunky fire-roasted tomatoes, onions, and fries, that can be customized with meat or seafood; tallarines saltados, which replaces the rice and fries with spaghetti; and the Chinese-meets-Peruvian arroz chaufas, a wok-style fried rice flavored with soy sauce and served with a protein that could be sirloin, shrimp, or rotisserie chicken.

While the cuisines share a menu, Moreno insists they are “very different.” Even items that may sound the same, like two types of empanadas, are distinct from one another. Moreno makes the Colombian version’s crust from corn and stuffs them with beef and potato, while the Peruvian style is flour-based with a traditional picadillo filling of peppers, olives, and chopped egg blended with ground beef or shredded chicken.

“Both the Colombian and Peruvian dishes do great,” he says of their popularity with customers. “I learned them from Grandma, Mom, and Dad. When I moved out and got my own apartment, I’d call home and say, ‘Hey, how do I make this plate?’, and I started learning my way through these old recipes.”

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You can enjoy a version of the “Steak Sinatra.”
ITALY

Johnny Costa’s Ristorante, Palm Springs

Since the passing of the restaurant’s famous founder Johnny Costa in 2019, his son Vince Costa would surely be making his dad proud, keeping the business a family affair with siblings, cousins, and even his sons serving on staff and keeping the menu full of comforting and delicious dishes true to the Costas’ Neapolitan roots. “We’re old-school American Italian classic,” Vince Costa says.

Several of the menu’s signature dishes pay tribute to one of the desert’s most fabled Italian American residents, including Frank Sinatra, whom the elder Costa cooked for in restaurant kitchens and, later, as his personal chef.

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Feast on Frank Sinatra’s favorite linguine with clam.
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Vince Costa is running the family restaurant.

Still on the menu is the linguine with clams, a Sinatra favorite with a special story attached: When the crooner once ordered his go-to pasta at the old Club Trinidad restaurant without realizing that head chef Johnny Costa had quit to open his own place, he was so dissatisfied with the new chef’s version that he threw the plate against the wall in a rage. What was the secret ingredient from Johnny Costa? Infusing the sauce with whole garlic cloves before straining them out. “Frank didn’t like to have garlic breath,” Vince Costa says, laughing. “He just liked the flavor.” While the restaurant’s current iteration defaults to the traditional method of chopped garlic, guests can request the dish “Sinatra” style, and the kitchen will do its best to accommodate.

The Steak Sinatra dates back to when Johnny Costa was working at Hollywood hangout Villa Capri, a Sinatra haunt, and learned the recipe for the singer’s favorite steak. Vince Costa has since made a few tweaks. “They used a choice cut, but we use prime New York strip now and pan-sear it instead of grilling it to keep the meat moist inside. And then the mushrooms, the bell peppers, the red wine — it’s a robust, hearty Italian dish,” Vince Costa says.

Of course, the true test of any Italian restaurant is its marinara sauce, which shines across the menu here — from the old-fashioned spaghetti and meatballs to the top-selling chicken Parm (pounded perfectly thin, breaded, and fried in a golden batter). “It’s an old family Italian recipe, but the trick is the quality of the tomato that you use. We buy whole plum tomatoes from the Cortopassi family in Northern California,” Vince Costa says. “Their tomatoes are vine-ripened before they’re put in the can. I can’t compromise on the quality.”

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The dolsot bibimbap and Yangnyum galbi (Korean-style short ribs) at Maru Korean BBQ & Grill.
KOREA

Maru Korean BBQ & Grill, La Quinta

Korean barbecue isn’t only about the novelty of having a sizzling grill at your table or the chance to cook your meat exactly as you want it. It’s also about a feeling of community. “Korean people, we all gather around the table, and we all share our meals together,” says Sam Bae, who helps manage Maru Korean BBQ & Grill. “We don’t order separate dishes like American style. It’s like having a picnic indoors.”

The barbecue menu includes a variety of raw meat choices and combinations, served with a bowl of white rice and a mix of banchan, small side dishes meant to be shared around the table, that might include traditional kimchi (fermented veggies often including cabbage, cucumbers, and radish), fish cakes, bean sprouts, and Korean potato salad.

While you can find plenty of all-you-can-eat Korean barbecue spots both in the United States and Korea, Bae says Maru Korean focuses on quality over quantity, offering USDA prime cuts.

“They serve much higher, premium quality meat compared to the cheaper all-you-can-eat [places]. There’s just a big difference in quality as far as the meat goes.”

Yangnyum galbi, Korean-style short ribs done in a “secret” soy-based marinade, is one of the highest-end cuts of meat, he says. “It’s tasty and pretty much melts in your mouth,” says Bae, adding that the beef brisket, known as chadol baegi, is another top seller. “It’s a thin cut, so it cooks fast on the grill. And then, of course, there’s samgyeopsal, which is sliced pork belly. That’s another one that’s very popular.”

Maru also offers an à la carte menu of traditional Korean dishes that have become more mainstream with Americans — including bulgogi, cooked strips of marinated beef or pork, and bibimbap, a rice, meat, and veggie bowl. “Those are some of the main dishes that most people here know,” Bae says. “Even Costco sells bulgogi now.” That is a good thing, as expanding palates mean more business. “We do have Korean customers too, but many days, up to 90 percent of our customers are non-Korean.”

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