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A Hot Time on the Menu at Pornvadee

June 04, 1992|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition.

Anyone who visits Thailand is bound to regale you with tales of the incredible street food, in my opinion the world's best.

Whenever I'm lucky enough to get to Bangkok, I head directly to the nearest som tam stand and park myself on a stool. Som tam is classed as a kind of salad, but it's also one of the world's great appetizers, and it makes a perfect hot-weather dish.

The recipe calls for peanuts, tomatoes, shredded green papaya and dried shrimp with chilies, vinegar and lime juice, and Thais eat it incessantly, with pieces of raw cabbage. Som tam is fiery-hot in Bangkok and usually costs about 15 baht (60 cents) a plateful. Alas, for some reason most of our Thai restaurants don't offer the dish. So when you find a great one in California--a som tam that brings tears of both pain and joy to your eyes--it's like finding the Holy Quail.

And here it is, right here in Anaheim. Located in a small storefront on a back street, Pornvadee dishes up the best som tam I've had anywhere outside Thailand, along with several other specialties that you won't easily find in this country.

A year ago, when I first saw the restaurant's lurid red neon sign trumpeting "the best Thai food in town," I carelessly dismissed it. Talk--or rather signage--is cheap. It wasn't until a friend insisted that I eat there that I actually payed them a visit. I'll be a regular from now on.

Despite the sign, this place is as modest as they come. The dining area is tiny, distinguished only by a giant wood carving on one wall and a small shrine graced by a portrait of a Buddhist monk tacked directly above the kitchen door. You sit at small tables covered with blue floral mats, garnished with tiny orchid petals in little monkey dishes. This is a family restaurant, and it feels like one.

The restaurant's name, Pornvadee, refers to the two sisters in charge here, Porn Mousikasan and Vadee Kojonroj. Porn, whose name means "prayer" in Thai, is the shy, retiring one, and shares cooking chores with Vadee's husband. Vadee speaks fluent English and works the front. If you have any questions about what you are eating, she is the person to ask.

It should be mentioned that this family is Isaan (also spelled Isarn), meaning that they come from a province in Thailand's northeast. The Isaan like it hot, so you'd better be serious about your chilies if you give them the signal to fire. "They'll blow the roof of your mouth to kingdom come if you try to get macho in here," warns a friend who lives nearby.

Most of these appetizers are on the mild side, though. Vadee has had to stop serving two of the menu's more spirited starters, nuar dad deaw (spicy Thai beef jerky) and nam sou kow tod (crisped rice with chili and mint) and is disappointed that they haven't been more popular.

So instead, you're stuck with things like spring rolls and tod mun, dishes which give no hint of the firestorm to come. The spring rolls are basically crisp cylinders stuffed with ground chicken, silver noodles and vegetables served with a sticky red dipping sauce, not too different from the kind you find in a Chinese restaurant. Tod mun are spongy fish cakes made with pureed whitefish, green beans and mint, and sport a distinctly Thai taste. Thais eat them with sliced fresh cucumber.

The preliminaries are over; now start your engines. The salad course features dishes such as som tam, yum nuar, yum goong and larb, and Vadee will make them as hot as you request. Larb is an Isaan specialty, so naturally it is a standout here. It can be made with essentially any meat, and Pornvadee's version is a symphonic salad of spicy chopped chicken, onion, cilantro and enough tiny bits of chili to give the entire mixture a reddish glint.

The yum nuar is great too, thinly sliced strips of marinated steak served on a bed of salad greens and sliced onions, accompanied by the ever present sliced cucumber and a tangy Thai dressing. Yum goong is almost the same thing, the difference being that this time the star ingredient happens to be shrimp.

After sampling zesty, flavorful soups like kaeng jud woon sen, which is ground chicken, silver noodles and baby corn in a light stock, and tom yum goong, the ultimate hot pot (a soup version of the aforementioned yum goong), you're ready for some of the entrees.

Two that Vadee lays special claim to are mee ka tee and "Thai sukiyaki," even though I'm sure they are not all that original. Mee ka tee is a country-style dish, a clump of ultra-thin rice noodles in a curry coconut milk sauce topped with ground meat, bean sprouts and crushed peanuts. It's a masterpiece of simplicity, a dish light enough to lunch on every day, and worlds apart from the greasy pad Thai that most of Pornvadee's customers order.

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