Thainakorn of Laguna Hills specializes in Isarn cuisine, the blistering hot fare of northeast Thailand, but instead of serving these dishes a la Thailandaise -- fired up with heaps of chile, ginger and garlic (as the original Thainakorn in Buena Park does)--the kitchen offers little more than occasional puffs of smoke, tame signals of yet another style of cooking being toned down to what a restaurant supposes Americans want.
The one saving grace is that things are handled with considerable skill. While not a restaurant that piques the senses, Thainakorn manages to be a reasonably good one.
Those familiar with the Buena Park Thainakorn also will miss the buzz of activity there: the crowded takeout area, the insouciant service, the lively Thai clientele. Thainakorn-Laguna Hills is a suburban restaurant with suburban manners: the decor is soft and relaxing, the service solicitous and discreet, the crowd subdued. The first things you notice about the Buena Park restaurant are the barbecue case and the small group of Thai women crowded around woks in the open kitchen. The first things you notice in Laguna Hills are a "happy hour" sign and a row of deco ceiling fans, turning languidly as if the tropics were ever so near.
They aren't, but here's a tip. As you pass the blackboard by the door, stop for a closer look. A list of specials is written on it in both Thai and English, and these are likely to be best dishes here.
If you're lucky, one will be Thai sausage, the best reason for a visit. It's a dense, reddish pink sausage loaded with garlic, ginger and kha (a cousin of ginger whose English name is galangal) that crackles appetizingly on the outside. You eat it with mint leaves, sliced cabbage and a sticky sweet sauce the Thais call nam gai. Try it Isarn style with little clumps of sticky rice served from a tiny bamboo basket. It's a wonderful treat, as good as anything I've eaten in Thailand.
Here's another tip: After the Thai sausage, be as daring as possible. You won't find frog or eel on this blackboard, as you would in Buena Park, but there might be Chinese watercress ( pak bung ), a hollow stalk that is alluringly sweet. The chef sautes it to delightful crispness with boiled, fermented soy beans. This substantial side dish will grace any entree, particularly seafoods.
Wild boar (moo pa) is another blackboard special of interest. It has a fine, firm texture and a good gamy flavor. I just wish the sauce, Thainakorn's generic red curry paste with too much lemon grass and not enough chili, was as special. That sauce seems to crop up often on the regular menu.
The regular menu contains just over 50 dishes. Unfortunately, repetition of sauces means less variety than meets the eye. When dishes are starred in red, by the way, it's to indicate that they are house specialties, not to warn you about degrees of hotness. Many are pretty bland.
One good dish is phad Thai, flat fried noodles with shrimp, bean sprouts, crushed peanut and a heap of sweet red chiles alongside. It seems that everyone who comes here eats this dish and I can understand why. The noodles are chewy and fresh, and the kitchen is generous with the shrimp.
One dish that doesn't get away with its blandness is tom yum kung, a "hot and sour" shrimp soup that turns out to be embarrassingly sweet. If you feel like something hot and sour, try gang luong par bang, hot and sour soup with catfish. They aren't pulling their punches nearly as much on this one.
One appetizer that scores is nam sod , a minced salad of pork, crushed peanuts and red chile. Eat it with fried "crispy rice" and some long beans and cabbage and wash it down with ice cold Thai beer. Another is n e ua dad deal, a hard Thai beef jerky you eat with a murky but savory brown bean sauce. But I didn't much care for n e ua nam tok, barbecued beef on a bed of sour vegetables. The taste of kha and lemon grass overpowered the beef, which was stringy and underdone.
Entrees include the usual barbecues like chicken and catfish, and a host of meats cooked in curry paste or garlic sauce. The barbecued chicken is tasty but on the dry side and not quite punchy. The stir-fried pork with pepper and garlic is also quite dry; it needs a good sauce. I didn't try the barbecued shrimp salad with Thai dressing, but if it's half as good as it is in the other restaurant, it should not be missed.
Thainakorn is not real big on dessert. There is a homemade coconut ice cream and occasionally something called rum mit: jackfruit, coconut milk and noodles flavored with padang leaf served in a soup bowl. This dessert is very much like what you'd actually get in Thailand. Too bad there aren't more dishes like it at this restaurant.
Thainakorn is reasonably priced. Appetizers and salads are $4.95 to $6.95. Soups are $5.95 to $9. A la carte dishes are $5 to $16. Combinations are $4.95 to $9.50.
24401 Ridge Route, Laguna Hills
Open for lunch and dinner Tuesdays through Thursdays 10:30 a.m. through 10:30 p.m., Fridays through Sundays 10:30 a.m. through 11 p.m.
MasterCard and Visa accepted.