A Thai friend who's a skilled chef has become a regular at Hollywood Thai Restaurant, where three good cooks represent three regions of Thailand: south, north and northeast (Isaan, known for its distinctive, spicy dishes). Their food tends to be salty, sour and hot, rather than sweet, as in most of our Thai restaurants.
You can get the usual Thai favorites--pad Thai, barbecued chicken, curries--but the less familiar dishes are much more interesting. Take cow pea salad. The "cow peas" are, in fact, skinny Chinese long beans, pounded with fresh and dried shrimp, peanuts and tomatoes. They emerge fragrant with lime juice.
"Four friends salad" combines two types of Thai sausage: a pinkish blend of pork skin and pork meat and the sort of smooth, beige pork loaf also familiar in Vietnamese restaurants. The other two "friends" here are Chinese black preserved eggs and cashews, along with cilantro, green onions, red onion slivers and plenty of Thai chiles for decoration. Fish sauce and lime juice predominate in the dressing.
Of course, there is som tam, the Isaan green papaya salad. At this restaurant, the papaya is cut into small, thin pieces with more definition than the usual shreds. The flavor is light and fresh, not murky with fermented seafood, but a few dried shrimp are pounded into the salad because the flavor would be unbalanced without them.
From the name "crab legs in Indian curry," you might expect a lot of yellow curry sauce, but this intriguing dish is actually crab mixed with onions, bell peppers, green onions, Chinese celery and cilantro stems (substituting for cilantro root, which is unavailable here). No yellow sauce at all. The taste of curry powder is so subtle you hardly know it's there.
Sauteed clams is a Thai classic. The rich dark sauce that collects in the clam shells incorporates garlic, tamarind, chile paste, fermented black beans and dried shrimp. You'll need rice to soak up the juices. (You can get either steamed rice or the sticky rice that Thais form into small mounds to use in scooping up food by hand.)
Like other places that specialize in rice soup, Hollywood Thai is open very late--till 4 a.m.--for the convenience of night owls in need of a restorative. The soup comes either plain or mixed with meat or seafood, accompanied by side dishes such as stir-fried morning glory or black egg and basil. This last is deep-fried preserved duck eggs quartered and sauteed with fried basil, garlic, hot peppers and sweet soy sauce.
Somebody who can't tolerate hot peppers can order "tiger cry." The name sounds scary, but the strips of beef are as mild as can be; all the heat is in the sauce, a mixture of peppers, tamarind, lime juice and fish sauce. Fortunately for the unwary, it's served on the side. The same sauce accompanies sun-dried fish--not literally sun-dried fish, as it would be in Thailand, but fresh trout cut thin and fried till slightly crisp.
In another trout dish, the fish is butterflied, floured and deep-fried, giving it a crisp, crunchy coating. The accompanying sweet, sour and spicy sauce contains shredded green apples, standing in for hard-to-get green mango.
Barbecued pork is a Hollywood Thai specialty. The strips of pork butt are soft, juicy and rather fatty. The seasoning is mild, but that same fiery tamarind-chile-lime juice dipping sauce comes with it.
To cool down from a spicy meal, try soft, soothing rahd nah: wide, flat rice noodles mixed with meat or seafood and faintly bitter Chinese broccoli. Hollywood Thai does this dish nicely. The noodles are lightly singed, which adds a pleasing charcoal-grilled taste.
Thai tea is too sweet and creamy for this sort of food. A better choice is nam krajieb. That's the Thai equivalent of the Mexican drink jamaica, brewed from the same dried hibiscus flowers used in Red Zinger tea. Wine and Thai beer are available too.
The dining room is flanked fore and aft with huge television screens. And there's a corner fitted out for live music, with disco lighting that speckles the ceiling. Entertainers appear nightly, starting at 9 p.m. Amid all this hullabaloo stands a large golden Buddha, just inside the entrance. Notice the tiny dish containing a Thai sweet placed beside the figure as a gentle act of daily worship.
* Hollywood Thai Restaurant, 5241 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 467-0926. Open 6 p.m.-4 a.m. daily. Wine and beer. Small parking lot. Visa and MasterCard accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $15-$30.
What to Get: Cow pea salad, som tam, four friends salad, sauteed clams, crab claws with Indian curry, barbecued pork.