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THE FIND

A fresh take on Thai

Vegetarian versions of traditional dishes? It all works perfectly at this Melrose cafe.

November 01, 2006|Susan LaTempa | Times Staff Writer

IT would have been fun to eavesdrop on the menu-development process in advance of the opening of Busaba Thai Vegetarian Kitchen, an almost 4-month-old restaurant. As the five women behind this terrific new spot -- three co-owners and two experienced chefs -- adapted traditional regional Thai dishes, testing and tasting, arguing and discussing, it must have resembled "The View" meets "Iron Chef."

Diners reap the rewards. The spicy-salty-sweet-sour interplay that makes Thai food so appealing is very much in evidence here because each dish has had to satisfy the expectations of each of the collaborators. Hailing from different regions in Thailand and with backgrounds that include the spice and restaurant businesses, the women each brought a different expertise to the problem of adapting dishes without sacrificing interest or flavor.

Thoughtful, confident spicing, top-notch fresh ingredients and an adventurous attitude are cornerstones of the menu's creative, mostly vegan list.

A standout like Busaba's crispy rice salad -- toasted kernels of brown rice mixed with tofu, slivered carrots and red onion, peanuts, ginger and lettuce, then dressed with lime-garlic dressing, chiles and cilantro leaves -- may be based on the Northern Thai-Vietnamese dish made with pork and broken fried rice balls (nem sor), but it's really a new creation. The fragrant, nutty rice gives the dish substance, but it's the contrast of lime, fresh, flavorful vegetables and peekaboo spices that keeps the platter making the rounds at our table until every morsel is gone.

Busaba is a tiny spot, a handsome little storefront with a small kitchen behind a high counter. The walls are painted in broad planes of muted tropical colors -- mango, persimmon, avocado -- and hung with contemporary photographs and prints.

There's a growing lunch crowd and at night the place comes alive by 8 p.m., but there's a steady parade of folks picking up to-go orders before that.

There are plenty of delicious appetizers. Vietnamese-style summer rolls are fresh and good, as are delicately folded steamed dumplings. Corn fritters are mildly spicy, terrific dipped in a subtle cucumber sauce.

Vegetable dishes are simple but sophisticated. Fat asparagus spears are paired with shiitake mushrooms in a mild oyster-like sauce; green beans sauteed with chiles and ginger are wonderfully spicy, tender-crisp and nicely wrinkled with spots of char. Busaba "pumpkin," small cubes of kabocha squash sauteed with garlic, chiles and Thai basil, softens and merges with its intriguingly seasoned sauce.

Most of the main courses come with a choice of tofu or "veggie pepper steak," "veggie chicken" or "veggie shrimp." But the protein substitutes are a distraction; the dishes have interest and balance without them.

The list of noodle dishes sets off one of those bouts of ordering anxiety in which you can't stand not to try a new dish but you can't stand not to order the wonderful dish you tasted on your last visit. The interplay of noodles of varying shapes and textures with inspired selections of nuts, herbs and crisp raw vegetables always works, whether the components are cold, chewy glass noodles set off with cashews and raw carrots in a salad, or the classic flat rice-based "drunken noodles," pan-fried with herbs and vegetables.

But it's with the curries, especially the unusual dry curries, that Busaba distinguishes itself. Green curry spaghetti treats the pasta as a noodle to be tossed with a smidgen of coconut-cream-based curry along with bamboo slices, green beans, slivered chiles, basil and bell peppers. It's spicy, with a gradual succession of flavors that build rather than give a one-note blast.

And Northern Thai curry noodles (kow soi) are fabulous. A little deeply flavorful yellow curry sauce is drizzled over a twisted nest of crisp noodles and raw bean sprouts. The noodles soften slightly but retain their body; it's wonderful with the bits of pickle that also come on the plate.

Rices -- jasmine, curry, pumpkin and brown -- are flavored and embellished with seeds and spices, and there are a variety of fried rices too, including one that's chile-spiked and topped with crisped basil leaves, and a sweetish pineapple-curry fried rice with nuts and raisins.

Desserts are restrained and quite elegant, but if you've ordered with abandon, the pretty dish of ripe mango slices with warm coconut rice is too much. So finish instead with coconut custard: three tiny saucers of mild, sweet flavor -- a few small bites to seal the memory of a fine dinner.

susan.latempa@latimes.com

*

Busaba Thai Vegetarian Kitchen

Location: 7168 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 857-1882; www.busabathai.com.

Price: Appetizers, $5 to $8; salads, $6 to $9; noodle dishes, $7 to $9; curries, $8 to $9; specials, $9 to $12; desserts, $3 to $6.

Best dishes: Crispy rice salad, glass noodle salad, kow soi (Northern Thai curry noodles), green curry spaghetti, Busaba "pumpkin," asparagus.

Details: Open daily from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Street parking. Take-out and delivery (free within three miles with $15 minimum). Visa, MasterCard.

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