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ORANGE COUNTY CALENDAR: ARTS, ENTERTAINMENT, LEISURE
| Sunday Brunch

Royal Thai's Crown Jewel Is Variety

Generations of Cooking Wisdom Are Employed to Create a Menu That Ventures Away From the Ordinary

March 19, 2000|KAREN NEWELL YOUNG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Thai restaurateurs have been known to get a little playful when it comes to naming their businesses.

There is Sweetie Thai in Long Beach, Thai One On in San Diego. And for the last year, Royal Thai has offered My Thai Brunches every Sunday.

Some of these places are not as inventive with the food as they are with the language, but Royal Thai has come up with brunch selections that venture away from the usual spring rolls, pad Thai and curry.

Owner Sumeth (Sammy) Tila says the four Royal Thai restaurants in Southern California (two in San Diego and two in Orange County) used to serve the fruity rum drinks called Mai Tais for the four-course meals served between 11:30 a.m. and 3 p.m.

He says the brunch has since been "refined" to include unlimited champagne and an appetizer, salad, entree and dessert. For $11.95, it's hard to beat this kind of bargain, especially in pricey beach towns.

Tila and his six brothers, who are from Thailand, began their food business with a market in Los Angeles. The current restaurant chain evolved from two decades of work in the United States and wisdom inherited from several generations of restaurateurs in their homeland. As the original Royal Thai, the Newport Beach location is the most timeworn, but affordable prices have earned it a reputation as a reliable and popular spot for locals.

Brunch begins with two first courses: katong thong, a crisp pastry shell filled with minced chicken, onion, chiles and curry spices topped with a cucumber chutney; and tila salad, which is grilled chicken served with red onions, tomatoes, bean sprouts and lettuce in a creamy sweet and sour dressing.

These courses are followed by a choice of six selections and homemade ice cream studded with jack fruit and topped with toasted fresh coconut. Or, instead of brunch, a la cart items can be ordered from the main menu that's offered during the week.

Of the main courses, the predictable meat satay or broccoli beef are good choices for the youngsters or the palate-impaired. On the other hand, angel wing, curry, hot basil shrimp and mint leaf pork are the most authentic and not for the faint of heart. Although they come spicy hot, all dishes can be made to order.

The angel wing is a giant chicken limb stuffed with glass noodles, ground chicken, onions and spices. I thought they bred special poultry for this dish because I've never seen such large wings, but the chef claims they are ordinary chickens. I wouldn't want to pluck them, but the dish is delicious.

Hot basil shrimp combines my favorite Thai flavors, garlic and basil, in a salty sour sauce with shrimp and vegetables. The mint leaf pork is a blend of mint, basil and pork in a sweet and spicy sauce.

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Thai cuisine is based on a harmony of tastes: hot, sour, sweet, salty and bitter. These add up to more than the sum of their parts because certain flavors blended make a distinctive third taste. The sour flavor comes from lime juice and vinegar; the fruitier sour is tamarind sauce.

Vinegar and lime juice added to chopped chiles intensifies heat and flavor, drawing out oil from the chiles and distributing it throughout the dish. Lime juice and fish sauce create the salty sour taste of pad Thai; sugar added to chiles, garlic, fish sauce and lime juice make for the sweet, sour and salty taste of hot and sour soup or Royal Thai's hot basil shrimp.

Lemon grass is a subtle seasoning used in many soups and sauces. Other common ingredients are ginger, calamari, peanuts and bean sprouts. Meat and vegetable mixtures are used to flavor the rice, which is served at every meal, even with noodle dishes.

I learned much about this kind of cooking at classes held recently at Royal Thai. Every three months, the chefs teach groups how to make drunken noodles, chicken satay, Thai sticks (marinated shrimp wrapped with noodles and fried) and hot and sour soup. For about $40, students learn how to prepare a multicourse meal before eating the food with a glass of wine.

While these classes help demystify Thai cuisine, how such complex flavors can be created with such humble ingredients will remain a mystery to me.

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Royal Thai Cuisine, 4001 W. Coast Highway, Newport Beach, (949) 645-8424; and 1750 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach, (949) 494-8424. Brunch served from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.

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