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Thai-ing Together 2 Fine Cuisines

January 27, 1994|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition

Choosing a restaurant in Little Saigon is one of the most pleasant culinary dilemmas. Bolsa Avenue is lined with hundreds of places to eat: Vietnamese noodle houses hawking giant bowls of pho , faux -French sandwich shops for noshing on homemade pate inside crusty baguettes, Chinese dim sum emporia where women push carts laden with pint-sized pastries.

Nam Phuong is one restaurant you'd never even spot without a local guide. It's a boxy storefront where a scattering of glass-topped tables, a deli counter crowned by a plastic durian (an odorous tropical fruit) and a grand total of three red vinyl booths fit into less than 400 square feet of dining space. The only reason I stopped in was the sign reading "Vietnamese and Thai cuisine"--an intriguing prospect. Most local restaurants serve a mix of Vietnamese and Chinese . That makes Nam Phuong a neighborhood rarity.

Little did I imagine that food here would turn out to be top-notch. There are two chefs in the kitchen, both women, both Vietnamese. One of them, it turns out, lived in Thailand for several years, where she all but mastered the art of Thai cooking. That makes it possible to combine the best of two Asian cuisines in one sitting, from a menu that has only one dish costing more than $6. Don't come expecting soft lighting or tablecloths. Do expect to have a great inexpensive meal.

The house lunch is only $4.50: one main course a choix , flanked by four tasty side dishes. First, you are served a delicious clear soup with potatoes, carrots and a single ball of spiced, minced meat. Then you choose between quail, beefsteak, five-spice chicken or other Vietnamese lunch staples.

The quail in particular are remarkable, two little birds cooked on a rotisserie and lightly perfumed with garlic and anise. The beefsteak is a good value, though it seems to have been tenderized. Accompanying the entrees are com chien (Vietnamese-style red rice), hot ga oeuf plat (the Franco-Viet name for fried egg) and a fine house salad of field greens topped with sliced onion and tomato in a vinaigrette dressing that puts those at Bolsa Avenue's many French restaurants to shame.

The Vietnamese appetizer goi cuon is another great lunch dish, and at 85 cents per portion (OK, $1.70 if you order two), it's possibly the most inexpensive lunch on the street. These are Vietnamese-style spring rolls served cold. Unlike their better known deep-fried cousin cha gio (imperial rolls), they are assembled out of a combination of raw and cooked ingredients. A thin rice-paper crepe is wrapped around leafy vegetables, shrimp and a piece of Chinese sausage placed strategically beneath the top skin. Dip one in some of the Hoisin and chili sauce already on your table, and voila , a veritable dejeuner sur l'herbe.

The Thai dishes make good lunches as well, the catch being that they are priced $1 to $2 higher than items from the Vietnamese side of the menu. Order gai yang in a Thai restaurant and you get charcoal-broiled chicken on the bone, spiced with turmeric, garlic and ginger. Nam Phuong serves the chicken in little pieces on wooden skewers, making a dream street food you can't stop eating.

Nam Phuong is one of the very few places on the avenue for som tam , the classic Thai salad made from shredded green papaya. This one is laced with tiny salted crabs, crushed peanuts and hot chilies, and hardly for the faint of heart. You eat it wrapped in cabbage leaves.

I like the restaurant's pho (rice noodle soups) as light suppers. Pho dac biet comes with lean slices of beef brisket and plenty of chopped green onions. Pho chin gan is a bowlful of contrasting textures: slippery rice noodles, crunchy beef tendon and unctuous bits of tripe. On the Thai side, you can find a classic like tom ka kai , the rich, spicy chicken soup made with coconut milk and served in an ornate silver tureen. A non- pho Vietnamese soup to try is bo vien --odd, crunchy and delicious-tasting meatballs with a texture not unlike that of mothballs.

The rice plates are quick meals under $5. A good one is the dauntingly named com tam bi cha suon nuong. What you get is a lean charbroiled pork chop (bone in), a cube of eggy Vietnamese meat loaf, glass noodles, beef and shredded pork parts, all for mixing with your clump of partially smashed, steamed rice. Another one not to miss is com ga nuong xa , charbroiled chicken flavored with a shot of fragrant lemon grass.

Most of the Thai classics are here. You can get sauteed mussels in a spicy red chili sauce, the ubiquitous phad Thai noodles (a medley of shallots, dried shrimp, bean sprouts and fried rice noodles), tod mun pla (typically rubbery fish cakes in a strange red sauce), larb nuea (ground beef with rice powder and a powder keg's worth of chilies).

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