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Pongo’s is Petaluma’s favorite Thai spot

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Petalumans love Pongo’s. For six years in a row, Pongo’s has been voted the Petaluma People’s Choice for Thai food, so there must be a reason why. Actually, there are a number of reasons you should give this place a try.

Pongo Pleinnikul, Kathleen and Lawrence Stafford are the partners who own Pongo’s. Kathleen and Pongo used to be married, and they have three sons who all help out in the restaurant. Now Kathleen is married to Lawrence, and they are a self-described “modern family” of people who will get to know your name, and greet you like family when you return.

They genuinely care about the quality of their food, beverages and service and it shows in their daily operation, where you will usually find Pongo in the kitchen, and Kathleen on the floor taking care of the guests, with some appearances by Lawrence at the bar in the evenings. Lawrence also takes care of the flowers and plants and herbs on the property, and advises about financial matters. He says he gets paid in beer.

It is a neighborhood kind of place, with a long bar that is great for drinks or for dining. There a cool little seating area that turns into a stage several times a month when they have live entertainment, as they did when we were in for dinner on a recent Thursday evening. The long dining room has tables and banquettes, so there are many seating choices to accommodate the busy dining room.

With eight local brews on tap, we took advantage of their beer tasting board, where you can choose four different drafts to try — a great way to get to know some of the other kinds of beers out there. In addition, they have a nice happy hour with special pricing, and they are even kind enough to point it out to you when you arrive during that time period. Rounding things out at the bar are some creative cocktails made with wine-based liquor, and a nice wine list. They even serve a grown-up Shirley Temple for anyone seeking nostalgia in their libation.

Over the course of a couple of days, we enjoyed both lunch and dinner at Pongo’s, trying out a total of about 12 different dishes, so we can report on a broad variety of the menu. The reasonably priced lunch and dinner menu are one and the same, with the addition of some lunch-sized specials, and then later some dinner specials on their giant chalkboard.

For appetizers from the regular menu we chose the chicken satay ($9.25) with four skewers of chicken breast, peanut sauce and cucumber salad; the crispy rolls ($8.25) with four rolls of vegetable filled wrappers, served very crispy with sweet and sour sauce; and the fresh rolls ($12.95), which was one large rice paper wrapper filled with crabmeat and vegetables, Japanese mayonnaise and Sriracha sauce, and ginger hoisin sauce – the six pieces were perfect for our party of six. Because we were there at the tail end of happy hour, we tried the spicy clam strips ($4.50) as well. All of the starters were nicely presented and tasty.

For entrées, we ordered Nick’s special ($16.95), a noodle dish with the upgrade for the generous serving of prawns. The server told us that was one of their most popular dishes, and we can see why, as it was very full-flavored and nicely cooked.

Thai-style BBQ pork platter ($15.95) included a huge serving of salad along with grilled boneless pork. The pork was cooked well-done, so if we would order it again, we would ask for it to be less cooked, as it was a bit on the dry side.

The veggie lovers rice with seafood ($17.95) was a huge portion of stir-fried vegetables with shrimp, calamari and scallops. Another rice dish we tried, Tony’s duck and rice platter ($16.50) had a full duck breast, cooked well-done, and served with a special savory sauce over rice and a large portion of simply steamed spinach.

The Pongo’s special ($16.95) was a yellow curry with chicken and prawns, and lots of vegetables in a coconut milk base. All the rice dishes were so large that half of each was carried home for another meal.

At the enthusiastic recommendation of one of the owners, Kathleen, we tried the dinner special of grilled peach and prawn salad over spinach with balsamic dressing ($15.50) and it was delicious.

The dish of lettuce cups ($11.95) was one of the best things we tried here. I would definitely try other lettuce cup dishes at this restaurant based on this one. It consisted of finely chopped chicken, scallion, fresh mint and cilantro in a lightly spicy lime dressing, and was a very generous light and healthy option.

If you like spicy, ask for their condiment plate that provides four different ways to spice up your food. Nicely presented, and a great way to adjust the heat.

During one visit we had an issue with something, so we asked to speak to the manager. From that point things were handled correctly, with excellent follow-up from the owner. It is one of the marks of a good restaurant when the managers and owners care and give the right kind of customer service.

The second half of our evening there found us enjoying the music of a local band called The BuzZ. They played their great music “unplugged” which still allowed some conversation, even though we were sitting right next to the area where they play. We especially enjoyed watching a happy little girl of about 4 dancing with what may have been her dad or an uncle. There is live entertainment at Pongo’s every Thursday and Saturday evening.