Thailand has had its problems, but it was never the colonial subject of a European power and it never had another country's way of cooking forced on it. Thus Thai cooking has been called more coherent than any other in Southeast Asia. The distinguishing characteristic seems to be the ability to counteract the hotness of peppers with the coolness of herbs. Thai cooking has taken Southern California by storm in the last five years, and it seems like every time you turn around, a new restaurant has opened. The ones listed here have all been recently reviewed. All prices listed exclude drinks . BUSSARAKUM (7353 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles (213) 651-0642). Located upstairs in a small shopping center, Bussakarum is much more beautiful than most Thai restaurants in Los Angeles with its mirror-like ceiling, airy view windows, fresh flowers and sparkling linens. Best bets here are the Bussakarum punch, a blend of bright juices that softens the sting of the spicy food served; a rice appetizer, kao-tang na tang ; stuffed chicken wings and the satay , which arrives dramatically in a bed of flames. Open for lunch and dinner, Tue.-Sun. MC, AE, V. Dinner for two: $15-$20.
QUEEN OF THAI CUISINE (823 3/4 Cahuenga Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 467-2075). This restaurant looks as small as a stand from the street. Inside, it is long and narrow, extending Pullman style through the main dining area to a porchlike room that is partially open to the breezes. The menu holds no surprises, but the garlic beef, fried rice crammed with meat and vegetables, and yum nuea , beef salad with lemony dressing, come highly recommended. House specialties include barbecued chicken and "three flavors mixed," a stuffed cucumber dish. Open Mon.-Sat. for lunch and dinner. MC, V. Street parking. Dinner for two: $16-$34.
ROYAL THAI CUISINE (4001 W. Coast Highway, Newport Beach, (714) 650-3322). What Thai restaurant wouldn't serve mee krob , the de rigueur crispy, sticky noodle dish? Certainly not Royal Thai, but that doesn't mean they can't have some fun with the rest of its menu. The food is distinctively Thai rather than a semi-Chinese compromise. Some of Royal Thai's diversions include "Siamese shells" with a filling, and "sovereign sausage," grilled thin pieces of sausage with cucumber in a lime juice and red pepper dressing. For the truly adventurous there's the Royal Yacht--a balloon of aluminum foil puffed up with steam from the oven, which the server cuts up with scissors into an approximation of a basket revealing a mixture of seafood, with tender green cabbage and celery. You also get a dose of foreign culture with your food--there are a lot of Thai trinkets around, like pointy golden temple dancers' headdresses and woodcarvings. Open for lunch Mon.-Fri.; dinner daily. All major credit cards. Dinner for two: $12-$19.
SIAMESE CASTLE THAI GARDEN RESTAURANT (4857 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, (213)460-6738). The Castle, which looks like something Disney might have conceived for Snow White's Witch with its strange turrets, wishing wells, waterfalls and 200,000 pounds of concrete wrapped every which way, is a dizzying mishmash of styles. The cooking leans toward Chinese and the menu is far more extensive than found in most Thai restaurants, featuring traditional favorites as well as barbecued chicken served with a syrupy vinegar sauce, pan-fried tofu topped with ground pork and ginger, mushrooms and chiles and boned whole deep-fried fish topped with three sauces. Open for lunch and dinner seven days. Major credit cards accepted. Parking on premises or weekend valet parking. Dinner for two: $10-$20.
SIAM MANIA (7450 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 939-2466). What's novel about this Thai eaterie? A few things, including the open grill where you can sit at the counter and watch the chef prepare satay , deep-fry chicken wings and toss stir-fry dishes in a wok. Another plus--no MSG. The cooking style is also slightly different from most, although Bangkokian, which more or less covers the hot and spicy cuisine of the south, with heavy Chinese and Indian overtones. Open seven days, lunch and dinner Mon.-Fri. Major credit cards. Street parking. Dinner for two: $20-$24.
SOMPUN (4156 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 669-9906 and 661-5350; 12053 Ventura Place, Studio City, (818) 762-7861; 14627 Victory Blvd., Van Nuys, (818) 781-7459). This pleasantly plain restaurant with a cool, cottagey look serves a plethora of excellent Thai dishes, including tom-ka-kai , made with chicken, coconut milk, lemon grass, cilantro and a mysterious dark leaf called laos , and larb --finely cut chicken or beef mixed with lemon grass, onion, lime juice and crushed toasted rice. Sauces such as nam pla , a fish sauce, and kapi , a fish or shrimp paste, are important and served with almost everything. Dessert (as is the fare in most Thai restaurants) is fried banana and coconut ice cream. Open Wed.-Mon., 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. MC, V, DC. Street parking. Reservations recommended. Dinner for two: $20-$25.