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Fire, Walk With Me

December 06, 1990|JONATHAN GOLD

There is a certain type of man for whom hot food is never hot enough, the kind of guy who adores the green fire of Peruvian aji sauce and splashes chile into Korean soups that are already hot enough to smelt tin. Members of this brotherhood--oddly enough there are few women--keep certain rib stands in business, often reek of garlic and cook each other searing stir-fries of beef, garlic and habanero peppers. They are the men whose personal Everest can be identified by the words "spicy hot for adventure."

Forget Sichuan or Mexican--Thai food is practically the only stuff hot enough for them, Thai food and certain Punjabi curries. Better yet is Isaan cooking, from the northeastern part of Thailand, which can be hot enough to stun even natives of Bangkok--even though it's mostly salads. The summit of Isaan cooking is the grilled beef thing called seua rong hai , which is reputed to be hot enough to make a tiger cry. A Thai friend rolls his eyes when he mentions it.

But last week at the splendid Isaan-style restaurant Renu Nakorn, seua rong hai was the single mildest dish on the table. Typical comment: " Yowwwwww! Ohhhhh ohhhhh; ah- ah-ah . . . geeeeeeez !" This is the kind of stuff you probably hear all the time if you live next door to the Leather Castle.

Renu Nakorn is a small restaurant in a Norwalk strip mall, down the street from burger stands and Western bars, next door to a working dairy, a mile or so east of the 5. (In the parking lot at night, you can smell cows even if you can't see them.) Though it seems to be at the end of the universe, it's only 20 minutes south of Downtown.

There was a blistering larb of finely ground catfish seasoned with lime, chile and nutty-brown ground toasted rice; there were the thinnest sour strands of shredded bamboo shoot dressed the same way; there was an extraordinary, coarsely chopped Isaan version of steak tartare that was so delicious it could've seared the hairs out of your nostrils. (Renu Nakorn, which may serve more kinds of larb than Shakey's does pizza, also makes the minced salad with squid and chicken and wonderful browned duck, among other things.) The waiter brought a side plate of sliced cucumber and cabbage on a bed of crushed ice, which you could nibble on between bites to cool down, and sticky rice in little straw baskets, which you're supposed to roll into balls and eat with your fingers. The seua rong hai , sliced steak grilled rare and served with a gamy, tart dipping sauce, was almost benign, a pleasant, meaty intermezzo between fire-breathing salads.

Renu Nakorn's food is spicy, but what makes it wonderful is the fresh play of tastes, a fugue of herbs, animal pungencies and citrus that is quite unlike anything at your corner Thai cafe.

Later on we ate a chile-seafood soup that would have been terrific in Hollywood but seemed pedestrian in Norwalk, good grilled chicken, and fatty chunks of pork neck that tasted like fat trimmed off a really well-grilled steak and secretly eaten over the sink after dinner. The endorphin high on the way home was tremendous.

I know a fellow who keeps in his wallet a card inscribed with Thai writing that says something like "He might be a gringo, but he likes his food hot. Please don't hold back in the kitchen." (If it really says "Kick Me" in elegant Thai script, the guy may never know.)

As soon as he sat down at Renu Nakorn, he took out the card, put it on the table where it would attract the waiter's eye, and leaned back, smiling with smug satisfaction. A busboy saw it first, and he picked it up and grinned; the waiter was next. A man wandered out from the kitchen to examine the artifact. My friend was an instant celebrity, and he and the waiter bantered easily about chile levels for a few minutes. But the food we ate wasn't any hotter than the times we went in without the card.

The menu is pretty extensive, but you'll get more of the best stuff if you choose a couple of dishes from the "Renu Nakorn Special" area of the menu and look plaintively at the untranslated insert when the waiter comes. You can negotiate a real Isaan meal with minimal effort, sweet-hot tendon soup and papaya salad studded with shocking chunks of salted raw crab.

You might find a whole deep-fried catfish, crunchy and sweet, whose caramelized crust has the smack of Thai ice tea, or dry-fried beef that tastes like the world's best beef jerky, served with a smoky chile dip close to a thick chipotle salsa. Maybe you'll get the grilled shrimp. But try to finagle the grilled beef flanked with chopped raw chiles above and sliced raw garlic below, something to bring tears to the eyes of 10 tigers and an elephant and all the cows next door.

Renu Nakorn, 13041 E. Rosecrans Ave., Norwalk, (213) 921-2124. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Beer. Cash only. Dinner for two, food only, $10-$20.

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