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Thai Summit

June 24, 1993|JONATHAN GOLD

It's jamming at the L.A. Food Court at the Thailand Plaza--really jamming--250 Thai people shouting over the music on a Saturday midnight, pounding down glasses of chilled coconut juice, slurping fish curries and duck noodles and grilled sour Thai sausage.

At one end of the long, bright room, the harsh reds and blues of a full-on concert lighting system play over the 12-piece band belting Thai pop songs from the theater-width stage, and the rock 'n' roll spectacle--Thai Madonna! Thai Trini Lopez!--echoes on the video screens that surround the dining area. A bunch of Thai teen-agers sing along with the band for a while before dissolving into laughter; the women behind the counter at the juice concession shriek like 12-year-olds confronted with New Kids on the Block.

Above the new Silom Supermarket and with a splendid view of the east Hollywood Sizzler, behind a 10-foot Buddhist gilt shrine, L.A. Food Court is the new crucible of Thai cooking in America, a more persuasive argument for the rude vitality of multicultural Los Angeles than a hundred government-funded plays at the Taper, a site that any sensible city would advertise as a tourist attraction instead of mere beaches and movie studios.

The Food Court, essentially eight Thai restaurants grouped around a central seating area, is a living thesaurus of Thai cuisine, 400-odd dishes from every part of Thailand. Ga-tien (sea snail curry, nam prik with pork) specializes in curry; Ban Khun Phor concentrates on rice, especially southern Thai-style rice dishes; Rangsit makes Thai noodles; Renu Nakorn ( larb , fried catfish, grilled pork salad) is a branch of the very best Isaan-style Thai restaurant in the Southland, possibly the only restaurant in Norwalk that attracts a Santa Monica crowd. For a fine, Isaan-style light meal, try two or three Renu Nakorn salads and a dish of sticky rice.

Amarin is a Thai bakery that makes everything from dead-white fancy cakes to tasty sausage buns, and Jitanong makes Thai desserts. O-lieng is a Thai juice bar--try the melon freeze. Ruen-pair is a branch of my favorite Thai-Chinese restaurant, whose original location is, oddly enough, practically right next door.

You order from a bound sheaf of menus, perhaps choosing a bamboo-shoot salad from one restaurant, crab-fried rice from another, duck soup with pickled lime from a third. Imagine a food court where you could eat Spago's pizza, La Toque's braised rabbit and Campanile's rosemary-crusted lamb all in a single meal, then imagine its Thai equivalent. You'll get the idea.

I have eaten at L.A. Food Court about a dozen times since it opened a month and a half ago, and I have tried at least 50 things, but sometimes it feels as if I have barely begun to explore what is available. Every time I come here I discover at least one dish that is quite unlike anything I have ever tasted: "Southern-style rice," dusted with toasted coconut and garnished with stinky sator beans; "beef salad with garlic," which is equal parts grilled beef, raw garlic and sliced hot chiles; delicately chewy fish balls with tiny eggplants in a green coconut-curry sauce as thick and rich as sweet cream, and other fish balls in a gritty, powerful dry curry; spicy preserved eggs, flash-fried with chile and basil. There is a superb version of yen ta fo , chewy rice noodles with three kinds of fish cake in a vivid red soup, a dish I thought I didn't like. Even ordinary beef noodles come in a rich, delicately musky broth.

Last week, a waiter brought us a dessert, served on a large, compartmentalized tray, which included dried shrimp, shredded ginger and toasted coconut, studded with tiny wedges of lime, drizzled with a mixture of fish sauce and thick, sweet soy, and wrapped into little lettuce-leaf tacos. The combinations--salt and tart; pungent and sweet--were fascinating, actually delicious, once you got over the shock of eating a shrimp dessert.

* L.A. Food Court at Thailand Plaza 5321 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, (213) 993-9000. Open daily 11 a.m. to 4 a.m. No alcohol. Enclosed parking. Takeout. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $9-$17.

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