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It's the talk of Thai Town

Ask for the other menu: Regional cuisine is reinventing this scene.

September 19, 2007|Linda Burum | Special to The Times

At Lum-Ka-Naad in Reseda, Alex Sonbalee turns out northern-style laap plaa duk, crispy catfish salad, and ground pork salad laap kua. The fresh ka (galangal) in these dishes is a northern trademark. His tom kha nun, a minced jackfruit salad with ground lime peel, comes with a beautiful display of lightly cooked vegetables for dipping. Meanwhile, his wife Ooi is cooking her favorite southern dishes -- her kaeng tai plaa, a soupy curry of fish and sliced fermented bamboo shoots appeals to those who love their food ultra hot and sour.

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Isaan

Isaan cuisine's torridly spiced salads of raw beef, raw freshwater shrimp ("naked shrimp") and grilled offal are often dressed only with what's at hand: pungent herbs, dried (not fresh) chiles, toasted ground rice and lime. Yet it all comes together marvelously.

At the new, stylishly appointed restaurant Khun Lek Kitchen in Bellflower, the Isaan dishes -- written by hand on a Thai-only special menu -- burst with wild spicy flavors: There's koi soy, a salad of raw marinated beef that may also be had with raw shrimp. There's barbecued liver salad, spicy beef tendon soup and lively kanom jiin noodles in curry. There also are Isaan dishes scattered throughout the regular menu: bamboo shoot salad and neua naam tok, sliced beef salad with lime juice and dried chiles.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, September 21, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 18 words Type of Material: Correction
Thai restaurant: An article in Wednesday's Food section stated that Lum-Ka-Naad is in Reseda. It is in Northridge.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, September 26, 2007 Home Edition Food Part F Page 3 Features Desk 0 inches; 19 words Type of Material: Correction
Thai restaurant: An article in last week's Food section stated that Lum-Ka-Naad is in Reseda. It is in Northridge.

Once extremely isolated, Isaan's impoverished farmers often sought jobs in Bangkok, and some opened street stalls selling regional dishes. The food eventually became trendy in Bangkok as Thai yuppies discovered it and began opening stylish Isaan places in the late 1980s and eventually in L.A. The Isaan practice of snacking throughout a performance of traditional music and dancing has evolved into the urban custom of accompanying any sort of entertainment with Isaan faves, which inevitably are offered at Thai nightspots.

A few blocks away from Khun Lek Kitchen is the real-deal Can Coon, named for the traditional Isaan reed instrument. At this tiny (cash only) place, most of the Isaan dishes on the menu are listed under specialties or circled. Affable owner Vinischai Satuporn guides your choices ("too many hot dishes," he might exclaim). Plaa dad deo, butterflied trout over slivered green apple with lime and chile makes a great foil for the burning kaeng som seafood curry or scalding laap kung, chopped shrimp salad.

You could hear a collective moan from fans of northeastern Thai food when two beloved Isaan restaurants, Thai Nakorn and Renu Nakorn (not related) in Orange County, recently closed. But it wasn't long after its devastating fire before a new Thai Nakorn settled into a large remodeled space in Stanton. (Another Thai Nakorn also is set to reopen in the Garden Grove location.)

Its sauté of wild boar with herbs, a dish that reflects the region's love for game, has all the hot-sweet-meaty-herbal flavors that made us fall in love with Thai food. There is also barbecue tongue, raw shrimp cured in lime juice and the now-familiar host of tear-inducing grilled salads. The new restaurant even has a dedicated "pastry" chef preparing Thai desserts daily.

Renu Nakorn, rivaling Thai Nakorn as the most popular Isaan-style restaurant in Southern California, was the place that made "crying tiger" (seua rong hai) notorious. It's sliced rare grilled beef served with sticky rice and an extremely hot dipping sauce. Last year the mall it inhabits decided to completely rebuild, but fans are thrilled that the restaurant will open in the same location, "projected for December," says co-owner Umpa Sripetwannadee. Look for tub waan grilled liver salad with bamboo shoots and spicy hor mok, a pudding-like blend of highly spiced thick coconut milk and chicken steamed in banana leaves.

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Thai-Lao

A handful of restaurants in Orange County serve Thai-Lao cuisine. It's the food of the ethnic Lao people who have always lived in the Isaan region. In fact, more Lao live in Thailand's Isaan region than in Laos itself, so it's not surprising that Thai-Lao cooking incorporates dishes from the entire area close to the border.

Many dishes are nearly identical to Isaan ones though not as spicy-hot. You'll see this at tiny Vientiane in Garden Grove, a 2-year-old shoe box of a place named for Laos' capital city.

On the photocopied menu (there's also a menu with color photos) you'll find Lao sausage-laced fried rice that's peppered with nuggets of pan-crisped rice chunks. The sautéed clams with chiles are simply wonderful, as are the fine rice noodles in yellow curry that you sprinkle with herbs, salad greens and squirts of lime. Catfish chunks come infused with kaffir lime and steamed in a banana leaf.

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