Chiang Mai. Though this pretty cafe serves good bamboo-shoot salad and fried shrimp cakes and maybe the spiciest papaya salad in Hollywood, the waitresses here seem a little embarrassed when you ask them about what northern Thai things they might have on the menu; the city Chiang Mai is the capital of north Thailand, but the restaurant Chiang Mai has hardly any dishes from the area. Chiang Mai does, however, have the best version in L.A. County of the northern Thai noodle dish kao soi , which involves both crunchy toasted rice noodles and slithery boiled rice noodles, piled into a bowl of thick coconut curry that's halfway between a sauce and a soup and is served with a little plate of Thai condiments--red onion, slivered lime, pungent pickled vegetables--that you stir in to taste.
\o7 5189 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood, (213) 663-0215.
\f7 Alisa. If you live anywhere near Koreatown, Alisa is more or less the only Thai restaurant that delivers to your home. And if you have spent even one Oscar night choking down the restaurant's undistinguished chicken-coconut soup or mint-leaf pork, you might be disinclined to believe Alisa's reputation for great northern-style Thai cooking. Yet here it is, the real mountain food: little straw baskets of sticky rice, tiny bowls of spicy green-chile dip that taste like great New Mexican salsa, an unusual hot \o7 larb\f7 of ground pork and liver cooked with holy basil, a tomatoey ground-pork \o7 nam prik\f7 sauce with sliced fresh vegetables to scoop it up. Terrific, garlicky grilled pork is sizzled black and crisp at the edges; bamboo-shoot salad, gritty with toasted rice powder, is spiced with enough chile to strip the enamel right off your incisors. The northern menu is fully translated. And Alisa is almost free--a recent dinner for 11 cost less than 70 bucks.
\o7 2812 West 9th St., Los Angeles, (213) 384-7049.
Chalerm Krung. Muslim Thai cooking, mostly practiced in the jungly southern tail of Thailand where it feathers into the Malay Peninsula, involves lots of coconut milk, tamarind, exotic spices and curries everywhere, and it is often closer to Indian--or Middle Eastern--food than to anything you might think of as Thai. At Chalerm Krung, the grilled beef \o7 satay\f7 , encrusted in spice, reveals its familial similarity to the kebabs of, say, Morocco, and the many curries--the standard green \o7 mussamun\f7 , the complex, yellow \o7 karee\f7 , the fiery-hot \o7 kuruma\f7 --are delicious scooped up with bits of the crisp, Indian-style griddle bread \o7 paratha\f7 . \o7 Biryani\f7 is a Thai version of the north Indian dish--yellow, tumeric-stained rice, fragrant with herbs, that is topped with golden shreds of fried onion. Noodle curry is quite like the bright-yellow noodle curries of Burma, soft pasta in a soupy sauce, garnished with bits of fat beef and wedges of hard-boiled egg, smartly flavored with tamarind and creamy with coconut. To finish, there is "Islamic tea," which turns out to be an unsweetened version of our old Indian friend \o7 masala\f7 tea, thickened with milk and spiced with cardamom, which the initiated--not me--drink out of saucers.
\o7 5101 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood, (213) 660-1178.\f7
Satang Thai. One of about a trillion Thai restaurants near North Hollywood's big Buddhist temple, Satang looks like any other mini-mall place, with illuminated pictures of satay above the counter and a bunch of neighborhood dudes pounding cashew chicken and beer. Satang also has a minor subspecialty in the ultra-exotic cuisine of southern Thailand, though you'd never know it to look at the menu. If you ask nicely, a waitress will warn you, will raise her eyebrows, but will describe the three or four southern dishes available on any given day--a peppery vegetable soup thickened with ground shrimp; crumbles of beef and chicken sauteed with the fabled stinky sataw bean; a soupy, fire-red, awesomely hot curry of fish and fresh bamboo shoots that is delicious but smells a little like somebody forgot to take out the trash. Be warned: If you are not Thai and you actually order the fish curry, several people will hover near your table to make sure you don't do yourself damage.
\o7 8247 Woodman Ave., Van Nuys, (818) 989-5637.\f7