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COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

Thai Soul

March 23, 1995|JONATHAN GOLD

The Thai Buddhist Temple in North Hollywood is a massive thing, tile-roofed and streaked with gold ornament, the grounds crowded with parishioners and saffron-robed monks and small children who run about as if the temple were a playground.

On weekend afternoons and during festivals, the air around the temple almost throbs with the smells of Thai cooking: meat grilling at satay stands; the wheat pancakes called roti sizzling on massive griddles; pungent, briny salt crabs being pounded for green papaya salad (all of it more or less equivalent to the smothered chicken and collards served Sundays after the service at some African-American churches), and the inexpensive Thai feast is open to all. The temple may be the epicenter of Thai culture in the Los Angeles area, and some of the Southland's best Thai restaurants, markets and video stores are located within a short drive.

Directly across the street from the temple, in a small strip mall where you can buy a packet of frozen durian or a tape of Thai hip-hop, where a Thai catering truck sells papaya salad and grilled Thai sausage instead of the usual tacos and cheese sandwiches, Swasdee is the rare Thai restaurant with more soul than refinement, more guts than flair. Geared almost exclusively to a Thai clientele, Swasdee serves the kind of homey dishes you might expect if you were invited to a potluck dinner at a Thai friend's house.

Seafood-fried rice is delicious, for example, a fiery thing of near-risotto creaminess, almost more fish than grain, but there is a rather heavy use of bright red "crab," and the rice is stained pink with what appears to be catsup. Rich slivers of roast duck in a dense, musky brown curry almost grainy with spice are simmered not only with exotic Thai vegetables but also with little arcs of pineapple cut straight from canned pineapple rings. Hot-sour seafood soup is clear, balanced, intense, thick with "crab," shrimp, fish, tender bits of squid and green-lipped mussels.

You would expect nothing less than authentic cooking in this neighborhood, and here it is: mellow green fishball curries, crisp-edged mussel omelets, Chieng Mai-style sausages of raw, cured pork, crunchy with bits of cartilage, arranged on a plate with fried peanuts and little cubes of raw ginger. The grilled beef salad and the overdressed glass-noodle salad can be less than spectacular--this isn't, after all, an Isaan-style restaurant--but the ultrafresh green papaya salad is very good, tart, chile-hot, heady with the sharp, briny aroma of salted crab.

One dish, a blistering yellow curry of fermented bamboo shoots, smells of clean stables, not the genteel flavor note often found in a well-aged Chateauneuf-du-Pape but a full-on horsey aroma that permeates every corner of the restaurant when you lift the cover of its clay pot. But curry is pretty good, the bamboo's tartness pushing hard against the extreme chile heat and the gamy wallop of salted fish--this is Thai cooking with the volume turned up to 10, and the dish is probably too strong for anybody not raised on the stuff to take more than a couple of tentative bites.

Fried chicken noodles are almost everything you want in a dish of Asian pasta, wide, slippery rice noodles stir-fried in a super-hot wok with bits of poultry, sweet soy and a heavy hit of garlic, something that could as easily be Cantonese or Malaysian but tastes wholly Thai; an improvised plate of noodles fried with chile, egg and mint for a vegetarian friend was the sort of thing most restaurants would list as a specialty instead of throwing off on a whim.

And while they're in season, don't miss the soft-shelled crab, three whole ones to an order, coated in fritter batter, sizzling from the deep fat, crunchy as potato chips and served with both a sweet and pungent cucumber salad. You may never again experience the eerie sensation of eating crabs that have the exact airy crunchiness of a Rice Krispies Marshmallow Treat.

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What to Get

Green papaya salad, fried soft-shell crab, duck curry.

Where to Go

Swasdee, 8234 N. Coldwater Canyon Ave., North Hollywood, (818) 997-9624. Open daily, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Cash only. No alcohol. Limited lot parking. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $9-$18.

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