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RESTAURANT REVIEW : 2 Cuisines, Same Good Service : Arunee House staffers nonchalantly put diners at ease to enjoy the Thai and Chinese dishes.

January 07, 1994|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Max Jacobson reviews restaurants every Friday in Valley Life!

TOLUCA LAKE — The cooking is good and the room engaging at Arunee House, but it is the graceful, accommodating attitude of the staff that you remember. Mai pen rai ("never mind"), as Thais are fond of saying.

This modest Toluca Lake restaurant has been serving some of the San Fernando Valley's best Thai/Chinese cooking for more than 10 years. It's your basic neighborhood Thai cafe (with cotton balls stuck to the windows at the moment for wintry effect); you sit at red vinyl booths under various pictures of King Bhumipol of Thailand--a direct descendant of the character Yul Brynner played in "The King and I"--as Thai pop music plays in the background. Never mind.

The reason, I guess, that I like the staff here so much is their casual nonchalance. The women who take the order lean on your table with the palms of their hands as if you are old pals, and if they run out of whatever you have ordered, they just smile, shrug and say (you guessed it), "Never mind."

The menu is so big, though, you won't care. Arunee House is one of our few Thai restaurants that actually acknowledges the fact that Thai and Chinese dishes are separate and distinct. It actually maintains two separate kitchens--and chefs--for the two cuisines. Any time you come, however, count on seeing parties chowing down on platters of pad Thai, the fried flat noodles eaten with pork, shrimp and bean sprouts, which is the runaway favorite in most Thai restaurants. The Chinese chef, I suspect, must get mighty lonely at times.

Kao tod , larb nuea and Arunee's shrimp are three Thai appetizers that probably contribute to his loneliness. Kao tod look like Rice Krispie squares, but closer examination reveals that they are essentially just savory squares of baked puffed rice--with no marshmallow creme. Top them with an accompanying sauce containing minced pork, cucumbers, chiles and sugar, and you have one of the world's great snacks. This version stands up to any I've run across in Thailand.

Larb nuea is the fiery hot appetizer from Isaan, the Thai northeast. The dish is made from ground beef mixed with rice powder and, you might say, gunpowder--a searingly hot chile mixture that makes your hair stand on end. Some restaurants soft-pedal this dish for us, but not Arunee House. Here's a lifesaving hint: Mix it with white rice to cut down on the intensity.

Arunee's shrimp, by comparison, is mild. The shrimp come three to an order, and at first glance you will think you are getting a plate of corn dogs. Never mind. The shrimp have merely been enveloped with glass noodles, minced chicken and spices before being plunged into hot oil for frying.

The tom yum kai may be the best I've tasted anywhere. It's a classic Thai soup made with chicken, coconut milk, lemon grass and other magical ingredients, and the trick is to make it rich without obscuring the chicken flavor of the stock it's based on. This soup clicks on all cylinders; it's rich, complex and full of exotic flavors.

Thais are fond of cold salads layered with hot cooked meats, which must have contributed to that trend which surfaced big-time here in California during the last decade. Thai beef salad is well known, so why not try yum ped (duck salad) instead? Some may find it a bit sweet, because of a sugary dressing, but the generous quantity of spicy shredded duck meat gives it a zesty appeal. Another salad I like a lot is glass noodle salad, a lighter item made from clear bean thread noodles, ground pork, crushed peanuts, romaine lettuce and a sweet hot Thai dressing.

I've tasted more than a dozen good Thai dishes here at Arunee House, seafoods (from the oddball crab claw curry to the exemplary kung tod ga tiam --sauteed shrimp in garlic and pepper sauce), noodle dishes (like ba mi , which are egg noodles topped with barbecued pork and shredded crab) and the various curries. But my experience with the Chinese dishes in this restaurant is limited.

Kung pao chicken is the standard, perhaps a touch sweeter, and more peppery, than in your usual Chinese restaurant. I tried the egg foo young with shrimp, and enjoyed it. Hot spicy shredded beef Sichuan style is loaded with onion, carrot and fresh peas in a zippy sauce.

And I couldn't help wondering whether the Thai or the Chinese chef prepared the crab fried rice, a crossover dish on Southeast Asian menus. (Oh, never mind.)

Where and When

Location: Arunee House, 10140 Riverside Drive, Toluca Lake.

Suggested Dishes: Arunee's shrimp, $4.95; larb nuea, $5.95; tom yum kai, $5.95; yum ped, $6.95; kung tod ga tiam, $7.95.

Hours: Lunch and dinner 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday.

Price: Dinner for two, $18 to $30. Street parking. Beer and wine only. MasterCard and Visa accepted.

Call: (818) 760-9074.

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