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Copping a Curry

February 21, 1991|JONATHAN GOLD

Renoo's Kitchen is the tiniest thing, a little Thai restaurant tucked into one end of a long Beverly Boulevard strip mall, across the street from the pan-Asian Cathay Supermarket and kitty corner from a bar named One Eye Jacks. As is usual in this stretch of East Hollywood, improbable congeries of ethnic groups pile on one another--just down the street is the burger stand Casa de Teriyaki--and the strip center also includes Figaro Barbers, a Laundromat frequented by Salvadorans and the Korean nightclub, Ihung.

The first time I went to Renoo's, I thought I had stumbled into a Thai general store by mistake. The tables in the center of the room were piled high with various Thai sweets and snacks, plastic package after plastic package filled with fried treats colored vivid hues of orange, pink and green. A hand-drawn poster on the wall advertised a brand of bee pollen where you might have expected the flowing Thai script to describe the special of the day; a certain concentration of gooey Valentine's paraphernalia dominated a table near the front. And behind a glass counter at the rear of a restaurant, containers of odd curries and things lay dormant in a steam table. People waited patiently in line for takeout cartons of the stuff.

What few tables there were for dining seemed crowded with dirty plates and silverware, and the only thing I actually saw anyone consuming was cold water from an Arrowhead cooler by the door. Plus, there was a pervasive smell in the place of nam pla , the pungent fermented fish sauce Thai cooks use as universally as Chinese cooks use soy. Too authentic for me, I thought. I walked out and ate salpicon at a nearby pupuseria instead.

The second time I went to Renoo's, I grabbed a menu and sat at a table near the door, where I could see the "CHiPs" rerun that blared from the restaurant's TV. It was a good one, the episode where Ponch learns to ride a skateboard.

"The spicy and sour jellyfish looks good," I told the waitress.

"I don't think we have that today," she said. "Let me go in the back and check."

"All right then," I said. "How about the larb ?"

"All gone," she said.

"The papaya salad?"

"No." She looked as agitated as I felt, and crossed and uncrossed her ankles as she leaned on the table. "I don't think we have it."

"Then what do you have?" I asked.

She straightened and walked over to the steam table. "This," she said brightly. "Most of the people eat two of these things." She pointed at those dismal-looking curries.

"Only $3.50" she said. "Try."

They weren't so dismal after all.

There is one basic Asian restaurant principle that has been proven again and again: eat it quick or it dies. Even the most succulent salt-baked prawns soon turn to greasy mush; even the tastiest heaps of rad nah noodles coagulate into goo. Thai takeout, cashew chicken and chile-mint squid, generally works no better than Chinese food does. But Renoo's, a basic Thai curry house of a style that's reportedly quite common in Bangkok, may be an exception--the longer a lot of the stuff sits around, the better it seems to taste. Renoo's turnover is steady enough to ensure that even the fried dishes are relatively fresh.

And because you point at things in the steam table rather than trying to get somebody to translate a Thai-only menu, you can taste a variety of food you might not ordinarily never get to see. If you're lucky, somebody at Renoo's may even tell you what you're eating.

The dishes on display change every few minutes, and there always seems to be a surprise or two. You might encounter lightly curried balls of fishcake that are served with pale, golfball-size Thai eggplant; or a khaki-colored beef curry, sweet with coconut milk and hot as the devil; or roast duck in a sauce of coconut and coriander seed. Decent prik king , dry-curried meat fried with bright-green lengths of green beans, is usually around; so is a squid/mussel/fish melange. (You can't escape the curry thing.) I've had an extraordinary soup made with duck heads and greens, that was as intense and vegetable-green as a great Georgia pot likker, even if the floating bits of duck brain were a little disconcerting after a while. There's a ground pork dish flavored like larb with chile and lime; there are bits of barbecued pork in a garlicky, honeyed syrup.

For a few dollars more, you can have things like whole fried pompano, crusted with a layer of basil leaves and chopped chiles, or a sort of foil-wrapped steamed dumpling that comes stuffed with fresh seafood and topped with a half-inch of coconut cream.

While there's table service, it's best to just march up to the counter and check out what's cooking. If you like, someone will wrap up your order to go. And if you decide to stay, they'll let you sit through an entire episode of "Matlock" if you want, no matter how many people are waiting for your table.

Renoo's Kitchen, 3960 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 480-8786. Open daily, 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Takeout. Cash only. No alcohol. Dinner for two, food only, $7.

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