This has been designated "visit Thailand year" by the Thai Tourist Office, which has mounted an uncharacteristically aggressive campaign to promote tourism. Restaurants like Min's Kitchen must be helpful to their cause, because whenever I eat in a Thai restaurant, I get a sudden urge to jump on the next flight to Bangkok and storm its vast array of food stalls and snack shops.
When Thai food is in top form, it's irresistible. Min's Kitchen, a charming restaurant in La Canada Flintridge rarely strays from that sort of form, thanks to the impressive acumen of owner Toy Vanarsin, a Thai of Chinese descent, who has converted this one-time sandwich shop into one of the area's best ethnic restaurants. Min's Kitchen is the restaurant's original name, dating back to its earlier days; Minnie was the original owner's name, and when Toy and her husband decided to buy the business, they couldn't afford to change the sign. After 10 years, they're not about to change it.
Toy's cooking style tends to be mild, partly because she is from Bangkok, a city that has tempered its collective palate to accommodate its large Chinese community, and also out of personal preference. She's glad to cater to those who like the heat, though, so don't be shy about asking for it.
Tom ka kai is a good beginning, a hot-and-sour chicken soup flavored with coconut milk, in a broth steeped with lemon grass and ka (galanga in English), a Thai herb. It's served steaming in a large iron kettle, and it's plenty hot for me. This soup is a good measure of how you will react to the other dishes: If it seems mild to you, so will everything else. In that case, ask the kitchen to add a little fire.
My favorite dish at the restaurant is keau warn, a curry made from young coconut and green chili, with generous amounts of bamboo, zucchini, onions, garlic and boned chicken. The curry is a beautiful pale green, and it has a sting that shocks the palate.
The restaurant's signature dish is fried mint leaves with beef, a dish that must be eaten hot if it is to be fully enjoyed. Be sure to tell the waitress that you want it that way; I've had a mild version, and it was missing a whole dimension. Peppers offset the sweet, pungent aromas of the mint, a combination of tastes at once startling and stimulating.
Like most area Thai restaurants, the menu at Min's Kitchen relies on proven successes, standbys that have achieved popularity with Westerners like pad Thai, rice noodles with minced pork, whole shrimp and a mound of bean sprouts as a garnish, or stuffed chicken wings, filled with a handful of glass noodle, ground meat and spices and then deep fried. Min's treats these dishes with the utmost respect. There is a wonderful Thai beef salad, with crunchy grilled beef and a sweet-hot dressing. Fried noodles with broccoli and sweet soy bean is a vegetarian delight. Rice dishes are fresh and fluffy.
The decor is cozy and tasteful. Toy recently remodeled, adding tables of elegant imported Thai rosewood, and plush rosewood chairs lined with green velvet. Plants and little Buddhas are strewn around the dining room, and there is a high, beamed ceiling.
I should mention that the most popular dessert at Min's Kitchen is grasshopper pie. One of Toy's loyal customers taught her to make it a few years back. When you think about it, grasshopper pie is a logical dessert for a Thai restaurant, because Thais use a good deal of mint, and a great deal of sugar.
Min's Kitchen, 1040 Foothill Blvd., La Canada Flintridge, (818) 790-6074. Open seven days. Lunch Monday-Saturday 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; dinner Sunday-Thursday 5-9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5-10 p.m. Beer and wine only. Parking in rear. VISA/MC. Dinner for two (food only) $20-$35.