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Thai Food in Pacific Beach : Asia's Fieriest Fare, and Some of Subtlest

January 06, 1989|DAVID NELSON

Read history as if it were a menu and you may decide that Christopher Columbus not only failed in his mission, but also achieved exactly the opposite of his goal.

Columbus sailed West in search of Indian peppercorns, which then were about as valuable as gold. Instead of cruising into the Bay of Bengal, though, Columbus tootled about the margins of the Gulf of Mexico, where he and the Europeans who followed encountered American peppers.

Only a few of the milder varieties (such as bell peppers) found an audience in Europe, but Asia embraced the hotter ones so wholeheartedly that one wonders how India, Thailand and Indochina ever survived the preceding pepper-less millennia. Thus, what was to have flowed from Asia to Europe instead went from America to the Orient.

This route has been reversed of late. Although Louisiana and parts of the Southwest have always had a taste for American peppers, it is only recently that the United States at large has come to appreciate them. Thai, Vietnamese and other Asian restaurateurs have taken up the burden of reintroducing this country to a range of fiery seasonings with which it always could have been familiar.

Pepper Champs

The Thais probably are the world's pepper champs; they have cultivated varieties that by comparison make the Mexican jalapeno seem as bland as broccoli. Tiny snippets of these lurk in some soups like submerged mines waiting to ambush unwary taste buds, and the experience is unforgettable, if not exactly pleasant.

Karinya, the attractive Thai restaurant in Pacific Beach, will cheerfully serve incendiary foods, but it does accommodate American tongues by offering dishes in mild, medium and hot versions.

Be forewarned that the scale is Thai rather than American, and by hot, the restaurant means that it would make a native of Bangkok reach for the nearest jug of ice water. A dish ordered "mild-medium" (an equivocation the kitchen will attempt to achieve) comes out approximately as hot as a good Mexican mole .

If Karinya's dishes are full of heat, its menu is full of surprises, because one can browse through it and find thoroughly Thai dishes that are inadvertent approximations of Rice Krispies and beef Stroganoff. Mee krob , for example, the popular dish of crunchy noodles in sweet sauce that snaps, crackles and pops when chewed, approximates that all-American favorite combination of texture and taste--it is crisp and sugary.

The addition of shrimp and bean sprouts make the dish distinctively Thai. In the case of the wonderful curry called panang nuah , substitute sour cream for the coconut milk, and paprika for the chilies and spices, and the result would be beef Stroganoff. This creamy dish is one of Karinya's most outstanding preparations and a wonder of subtlety, since, like other Thai curries, the spices (if not the chilies) are used with restraint.

Herbs, especially mint and a particularly intense type of basil, often are added by the handful, and they bring a particularly brisk and refreshing note to both salads and cooked dishes. Peppers are used rather like painters use their more vivid paints, in order to throw the lighter, more delicate shades into relief.

The rainbow effect of flavors that can be produced by herbs in combination with peppers shows up in such dishes as yum nuah , a grilled beef salad that incorporates mint, lemon and peppers as heighteners of the base ingredients of beef, cucumbers and greens.

The Final Kick

A similar and delightfully savory dish goes by the name of Chiang Mai Delight and consists of sauteed ground pork tossed with peanuts, slivered red onions, lemon and chilies.

The red onion gives this dish its final kick and also, in relation to the other ingredients, seems somewhat cooling. It seems rather remarkable that onion can play such a role, but this is a powerful dish.

Thai cooking by no means excludes mild dishes, and it can range to great pungency, especially in the case of soups. The menu at Karinya has admirable depth and offers plenty of choice in the not-hot categories.

Many starters are mild, such as the ever-popular satay , or skewers of grilled beef, chicken or pork served with a savory peanut sauce; the Thai spring rolls, a delicate variation on the Chinese egg roll that includes a filling of thread noodles, vegetables and minced pork; the "lotus cups," or flaky pastries stuffed with a lightly curried filling of chicken and potatoes, and the Thai toast, another variant on Chinese cuisine that deep-fries triangles of bread that have been spread with a paste of pounded shrimp, pork and egg.

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