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VALLEY WEEKEND | RESTAURANT REVIEW

Thailandia Delivers in Many Small Ways

Despite its emphasis on sugary flavors, the tiny kitchen creates an outstanding barbecued chicken and a fistful of choice finger foods.

July 18, 1996|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Thailandia is an intriguing place. With a tiny kitchen and just two cooks, it manages to offer more than 100 dishes.

But to expect authentically spicy Thai food here is, well, optimistic. One evening, after a very bland meal, I asked our waitress if Thai customers got something different, and she discreetly nodded yes. Sometimes Thailandia's food is delicious; more often, the classic Thai dishes have been over-sweetened and just plain dumbed-down.

Knowing these limitations, though, I'll probably come back anyway. The kitchen puts out terrific barbecued chicken (gai yang), a number of good appetizers and several first-rate noodle dishes.

This narrow cafe is dominated by a big-screen TV, which the owners use for strolls down memory lane. One night someone was reviewing a tape of the "Ed Sullivan Show" featuring the Beatles, circa 1964. Another night there was Thai-language karaoke using a laser disc.

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The appetizers, salads and snacks are solid. Chinese-style dumplings, whether steamed or fried, are chewy, bite-size dough pockets stuffed with minced chicken, Napa cabbage, ginger and onion.

Another irresistible finger food is galung tong, tiny open-faced pastry cups filled with curried chicken and corn niblets. Occasionally, Thailandia gives galung tong away as a complimentary appetizer, one to a customer. This is a diabolically clever way to stimulate your appetite.

Kao tod, though, is a disappointment. The main component is four puffed rice cakes, each about three inches square, deep fried to a golden brown. Accompanying the rice cakes is a side dish of minced chicken and shrimp in a sticky peanut sauce. The sauce is so sweet it hurts your teeth. It is also a signal of more to come.

But you can stave off the sugar gods with two traditional northeastern Thai salads, larb and naem sod. Thailandia won't make your larb too hot to handle, but it won't be sweet, either. Larb is a blend of toasted rice, mint leaves, chiles, lime juice and minced meat, either beef, chicken or pork.

It is traditionally eaten wrapped in cabbage leaves and accompanied by sticky rice. Thailandia usually keeps this glutinous rice specifically for Thai customers, but I'm told non-Thais can call ahead to request it.

Naem sod is subtly different from larb, and likewise makes a good companion to sticky rice. This time, the meat choices are limited to chicken and pork, and the meats are chopped coarsely, rather than minced. There are peanuts in the dish, too, and probably more lime juice. As a result, naem sod is more sour than spicy, and the ingredients resonate individually on the palate, rather than combining into a single effect.

Thai barbecued chicken is the highlight of a meal here. It's crusty, spicy, juicy and complex, a crisp-skinned bird coated in turmeric, coriander, ginger and garlic--exactly like what you get in Bangkok. Like larb and naem sod, Thai barbecued chicken is meant to be eaten with the fingers.

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Main dishes include an oddball bacon-wrapped shrimp in a sugary oyster sauce, fried pompano in sweet and sour sauce and all the usual mouth-watering Thai curries: red, yellow, green, mussaman, panang, prik king and the rest. The curries are based on coconut cream; the various colors come from spice mixtures. As made here, the dominant ingredient in all the curries is sugar.

Mussaman curry includes potatoes and peanuts, commonly as a foil for stewed beef. This particular mussaman is like a peanut-based ice cream topping, which strikes me as all wrong for beef.

On the other hand, panang has a natural sweetness to begin with because of its green peas and bell peppers, which make a pleasant complement to the sauce's coconut cream base. Order panang with chicken or pork; the contrast of meat and sugar is less jarring than with beef.

Thailandia is capable of playing it straight. The tender lamb curry is hearty, mild and not overly sweet, its thin but flavorful gravy ideal with fluffy steamed rice. I also enjoyed pumpkin curry, which comes with a choice of meats, and I love anything here made with noodles.

Try chun-pu, a platter of stir-fried rice noodles with shredded crab meat, and pad woon sen, clear mung bean noodles.

DETAILS

* WHAT: Thailandia.

* WHERE: 2730 Burbank Blvd., Burbank.

* WHEN: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 4-10 p.m. Sunday.

* HOW MUCH: Dinner for two, $16-$33. Suggested dishes: galung tong, $5.25; naem sod, $5.25; larb, $5.25; barbecued chicken, $5.25; chun-pu, $6.95.

* FYI: Beer and wine. Parking lot. American Express, MasterCard and Visa.

* CALL: (818) 842-8222.

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