Ninety-eight point six percent of the time when a menu arrives in my mailbox, it's tethered to a giddy press release. A few weeks ago the Little Orchids restaurant menu sailed in with a note from a friend. "I come here all the time," it said. "Incredibly cheap, the people are dolls, the coconut soup is great. Want to review it?"
I called her the next day. "You really like it?" "Love it," she said. "The fish cake's incredible. And all my friends go there." "OK," I said. "You're on."
With more than 65 Thai dishes to choose from (most around $5, only six priced above $5.50), we ordered a feast to go with lots and lots of choices for our vegetarian sidekick. We started with the fish cake appetizer.
Ah well. In my curmudgeonly opinion, that mass of finely ground fish and green beans--fried, sliced and served with a cucumber peanut sauce--turned out to be one of the two black holes of the meals. "Oh dear," I said. "Sea sponge Spam." My friend was crestfallen. "Try the coconut soup," she whispered.
Little Orchids does lovely things in the soup department. Its classic coconut milk, lime juice and chicken soup is delicious, perfectly balanced and brimming with mushrooms. The lemon grass, fresh tomato and green onion chicken soup is spirited. Po-tet , a combination of juicy big shrimp, fresh mussels and faux crab has a potent, seaworthy broth.
An order of a larb appetizer tastes like a Southeast Asian carnivore's version of tabbouleh : It's very finely ground lean beef doused with lime juice and chile, mint leaves and skinny strips of red and green onion, served with bright green lettuce envelopes. And a nice summer salad it is. Squid salad, sprightly with the sweetness of mint and red onions, needs more squid. Glass noodle salad, with chicken and shrimp, is more timid with the dried chiles than one would hope for.
Two of the specialties, house special chicken and Thai golden wings, provide more punch. The former, hacked chicken marinated in mint and basil and a dark soy-based sauce comes deep-fried or grilled with coconut milk. The fried version is crusty, moist and deeply flavorsome, closer in taste to a barbecued chicken than an American batter-fried bird.
The golden wings are labor-intensive and look like a fancy nougat candy, stuffed, as they are, with ground chicken, shrimp, onions, green peas and thin strips of shiitake mushroom. Caveat : The forcemeat texture is not for everyone--and the flavors taste more potent the second day when served cold.
Unless the Thai spicy fried rice (choked with oil, not one whit spicy) is significantly different from the five other rice dishes, I'd simply skip this category. There are numerous other dishes made with more care. Fresh spinach, sauteed with lots of garlic and soy sauce, is perfectly beguiling. Thai Prik-King, fresh green beans and shrimp (or chicken) is a rich, verdant stew fragrant with coconut and chile. Garlic chicken noodles, wide soft noodles besotted with a rich garlic gravy and crunchy bean sprouts, is lovely comfort food. The vegetable curry is delicate. One dish called the mushroom trio is actually a nice quartet of stir-fried shiitake , straw and table mushrooms with whole scallions.
If you're paying more attention to conversation with friends than to critiquing what's going into your mouth, several dishes are just fine. Phad Thai , with lots of chicken, is not as piquant as it can be elsewhere. Rad-nah seafood--lovely wide noodles, plenty of juicy shrimp and green beans and (bah, humbug) that faux crab--floats in a characterless gravy.
Desserts are limited to several summery fruits. Canned lychees and rambutan nuts (which look like ruffled lychees and taste like crisp, blanched, perfumed pears) are served sparkling cold floating amid tiny cubes of ice.
Little Orchids Restaurant, 21614 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills, (818) 883-4848. Lunch 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner 3-10 p.m. Monday-Friday; 5-10:30 p.m. Saturday; 5-10 p.m. Sunday. MasterCard and Visa. Parking lot.