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RESTAURANT REVIEW THAI 'N' I : Barbecue's Best : Not too traditional, but the barbecued ribs are great and the fried rice has the flavor of Chinese 'comfort food.'

March 21, 1991|HILARY DOLE KLEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It seemed a little odd to hear country and Western music playing in a Thai restaurant, but this Thai restaurant turned out to be more American (or Chinese-American) than most. Furthermore, there isn't a country person (or city person) I know who wouldn't fall for Thai 'n' I's barbecued ribs in a big way.

Could this be Thai soul food?

I liked the spare, serene, clean decor of this little restaurant, which sits smack in the middle of a shopping center. But when I first tasted the coconut-chicken soup here, I felt let down. Where was the lemon grass, the cilantro, the gingery galangal ? Instead of coconut milk, this soup consisted mostly of chicken broth. And instead of exotic mushrooms, it was swimming with canned baby corn. It had all the therapeutic value of a good, honest chicken soup, but it wasn't particularly Asian. The Thai 'n' I salad was a disappointment, too. It had a peanut dressing, all right, but it was blandly sweet, and the iceberg lettuce and vegetables seemed tired.

But these are not the dishes that make this restaurant popular. It's the barbecued chicken and ribs. Behind a glass wall you can watch the staff cooking them on a giant grill.

The pork ribs--$7.79 for a generous order--were juicy, succulent and wonderfully flavored with a crisp coating of salt, ginger and garlic. A nice, sweet sauce for dipping was served alongside, but the meat had so much flavor the sauce wasn't needed.

If you've sworn off pork, try the satay --thin strips of marinated lean chicken or beef. It's the kind of food you eat while nodding unconsciously to yourself with approval. Crisp and incredibly sweet mee krob noodles reminded me of those gooey squares made from Rice Crispies and corn syrup--I enjoyed them enormously.

Once you give up the notion that Thai 'n' I isn't going to provide the complex and surprising flavors of a traditional Thai restaurant, you can be quite satisfied. The food is perfect for takeout, and the restaurant is even located right near a video rental store.

Fried rice ($5.25), with bits of green onion, chicken, tomato and egg, is Chinese comfort food. Sweet-and-sour vegetables are also reminiscent of a Chinese meal. Pad Thai noodles are fairly bland. The spicy beef with string beans is fiery hot.

So are the pungent, spicy mixed vegetables, and the thick, red panang beef curry, a dish I would recommend. There's a lunch special, served until 2 p.m., with a choice of five or six generous entrees for $3.95.

Not everything about Thai 'n' I's food can be compared to Chinese food.

When you do leave, though, it isn't long before you're trying to figure out how to fit those barbecue ribs into your schedule again . . . preferably, as soon as possible.

* WHERE AND WHEN

Thai 'n' I, 2755 Agoura Road, Westlake Village, (805) 494-8424. Lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday 3-9 p.m. Wine and beer. Parking lot. Visa and MasterCard. Dinner for two, food only, $11-$26.

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