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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Thai for the Timid and the Adventurous : A new Ojai eatery serves up fresh and exciting food without relying on sugar and MSG.

March 03, 1994|HILARY DOLE KLEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

While you can't fish for fresh salmon in the waters around Thailand, a small Thai restaurant in Ojai has come up with a specialty of fresh salmon poached in a Thai spicy and sour broth. The marriage of flavors in this dish is marvelous, and makes a compelling argument for the shrinking global village.

The owner of the restaurant is certainly a citizen of this village. Chieko Latawan Lopez came from Northern Thailand as a teen-age exchange student to live with a family in Santa Paula. Later, while attending Ventura College, she met her husband, who had been born in Mexico. She says she opened Lanna Thai six months ago for two reasons: "I love to cook; and I love to hear people say, 'I love your food.' "

A cheerful, yet casual place with a patio garden decor, most of the restaurant's dishes conform to traditional Thai cooking, except that they contain very little sugar and no MSG. The kitchen also makes use of a greater variety of fresh vegetables than I've seen in other Thai restaurants, and the dishes are not as explodingly hot as Thai food can get.

Besides the outstanding spicy and sour salmon soup ($12.95), all the soups were excellent here, most of them built on the same base of hot lemony broth, laced with lemon grass, lots of mushrooms and, in the case of tom kha ($3.25), a taste of coconut milk.

Here is the perfect place to take, as we did one day, someone who is leery of Thai food. We showed our Nervous Nellie how a person can order a meal of won ton soup (very tasty), garden rolls (similar to spring rolls) and Thai fried rice with assorted vegetables (fairly bland) and come away thinking the food isn't that different from mild Cantonese cuisine.

However, there are much more exciting meals to be concocted, from both the regular and vegetarian menus. For starters, I liked the yum woon sen salad ($5.95) with its thin silver noodles and warm, savory lime dressing. Even better, pla goong salad ($7.95) had grilled shrimp on top of spikes of julienne vegetables, with lemon grass, mint, cilantro and zesty chilies.

Pad Thai ($6.95), a classic rendition of this popular noodle dish came with sticky, orange-colored noodles and chubby shrimp, garnished with cooked eggs, bean sprouts and peanut crumbs.

Every curry I tasted here was appetizing, including kang ped ($5.95), a mild curry with plenty of bamboo shoots and kang ka ree, and a dulcet yellow curry made with potatoes and onions and coconut milk. The two standouts were the prawn curry ($7.95) made with red peppers, carrots and peas, and pleasingly sweetened with chunks of pineapple, and a classic panang curry, consisting only of meat and red peppers coated with a spicy sauce.

Another dish, mint leaves ($5.95), which came with a choice of meat (the beef was a bit tough), created an arresting dialogue of flavor between the mint and the chilies. While the service was terrific, and the prices were quite good, it wouldn't hurt to improve the quality of the meat they're using.

This place is also kid-friendly, and happy meals for the little ones would include the chicken coconut soup, spring rolls and skewered, barbecued meat satay ($6.25).

For young and old, they offered one dessert: homemade Thai coconut ice cream, a pleasingly icy concoction. Textured with hard flecks of coconut and, believe it or not, bits of corn, we thought it also contained green peas, but were told that was "Thai Jell-O." I like surprises, especially when they taste so good.

Lopez said she has a woman cooking in the kitchen who used to cook with lots of sugar and MSG. The woman at first strongly resisted the restrictions against their use. According to Lopez, it wasn't long before she came to her and announced, "Oh boss, you really proved it."

Details

* WHAT: Lanna Thai.

* WHERE: 849 E. Ojai Ave., Ojai.

* WHEN: Open for lunch and dinner, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.

* COST: Dinner for two, food only, $15 to $36.

* ETC: Wine and beer. Visa and MasterCard. Call 646-6771.

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