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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Blending of Flavors Disappointing : Most dishes on the menu lack the needed contrasts, but catfish with a spicy sauce may be worth the drive.

September 30, 1993|DAVID B. GOLDMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In a beautifully clear example of Suburbia's clash with rural California, Lindero Canyon Road comes to an abrupt end at the edge of North Ranch. The road has come east from the freeway, through middle- to upper-middle-class tract homes that seem to just go and go.

Then suddenly, Suburbia disappears. On the hills beyond, the grass is summertime dry and an occasional oak stands its ground. On the other side of the hills is the Simi Valley.

But just before the road ends are two--what else?--shopping centers. The one on the right has its quota of contemporary suburban restaurants--Chinese, Italian, Mexican and so on. Across the street, the other one, anchored by a Pavilions supermarket, contains a Thai restaurant.

I wish I could say that the Thai Ranch is worth driving all the way to the end of Lindero Canyon Road, but that would be an exaggeration--except, perhaps, for those of us who will go anyplace for Thai food.

Peter Konenakeaw, the owner and sometime-chef, has come up with a lovely room. The linen is a turquoise shade, covered by glass. Wall hangings from Southeast Asia go gently with lacquered black chairs. The brassy flatware is a bit different and very attractive.

Thai cuisine, surely one of the most delicate, most sophisticated in the world, is one of contrasts. Sweets are matched with sours, piquant spices with fruits. But these blendings are disappointing at the Thai Ranch.

Mee krob ($5.95), the traditional dish of crispy fried rice noodles, is always sweet, but these come out like an Asian version of Frosted Flakes. Not even the cilantro and fresh bean sprouts can save them.

The angel wings ($5.95), boneless chicken wings stuffed with chicken or pork with bean threads and vegetables, are thick and substantial, yet flavorless and overcooked.

Somewhat better, but still too sweet--what is it about sugar here?--are the golden cups ($5.95), small, crispy flour shells filed with shrimp, chicken, spices and vegetables. The texture helps this dish, with its peas and corn kernels, but the cucumber sauce on the side doesn't do much for it.

A much better idea is the yum yai salad ($5.95), filled with shrimp, chicken, sliced cabbage and sliced eggs, on a bed of romaine lettuce. It's a crisp, fresh dish, and the peanut dressing does it justice.

But who can speak about a Thai restaurant without mentioning soup? The best one may be the tom yum koong ($4.50 bowl), a typical Southeast Asian sour soup, this one with shrimp and lemon grass and the house's own seasoning. It's crammed with fresh mushrooms and is one of the better dishes at the ranch.

One of the main dishes is rad na seafood ($7.95), a plate of flat noodles topped with shrimp, squid, crab and a single mussel. The ingredients are fine, the gravy sauce and broccoli make it look like a good dish. And it might be if it had any character. It is neither spicy nor savory, and it could be made that way so easily.

It was with the curries that the spices finally sprang forth. The panang curry ($5.95) of stir-fried beef or chicken is a red-sauce dish, with green peas and coconut milk. Its spices are tasty but, unfortunately, the chicken can be overcooked. The garlic lover ($6.95), which comes with either pork or chicken or beef, is described as meat marinated with garlic, black pepper and cilantro. But even this one lacks the essential merger of garlic with the other flavors.

There is a saving grace at the Thai Ranch, one that may make the drive worth it. You can get a whole catfish ($13.95) with a spicy sauce. The fish, beautifully presented--as is much of the cuisine--does what Thai cuisine is supposed to do: contrasts flavors. The deep-fried fish is large, the sauce is spicy and sweet, made with chilies and garlic and onions and vinegar and sugar--all those great flavors mixed together. The thick crust is delicious.

Back in the kitchen at the Thai Ranch, you can hear kids playing. They seem pretty happy. Perhaps they've gotten some of the catfish.

* WHERE AND WHEN

Thai Ranch, 1145 Lindero Canyon Road, Thousand Oaks, (818) 991-4499. Open for lunch and dinner Mondays-Saturdays 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m., Sundays 5-10 p.m. Beer and wine, major credit cards accepted, reservations accepted. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $15-48.

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