With the penetrating scent of lemon grass fused with garlic and roasted chiles trailing behind him, a waiter sets a khan tohk on our table at the new Lum-Ka-Naad. It's a sort of northern Thai omakase, a mini banquet packed with lush, wild flavors. It is served on a short-legged woven palm frond table laden with bowls heaped with palate-searing dips, mellow curries, varied-textured vegetables and spice-infused fish wrapped in a banana leaf as well as heaps of mysterious fresh herbs and carefully arranged leafy greens the color of a spring garden. It's a meal that keeps the sense memory reliving every taste long after the last bite is finished.
In its first incarnation, Lum-Ka-Naad opened as a shoe box of a restaurant where owners Alex and Ooi Sonbalee, from northern and southern Thailand, respectively, bucked the odds in their north San Fernando Valley neighborhood by emphasizing the raw, assertive tastes of the rural Thai cooking they grew up with. Now the growing interest in ever-more specific regional cuisines has given them their moment, and they've risen to the occasion with a dramatic makeover in a different location.
The new place boasts a long, dark-wood noodle bar with its own separate menu. A glass-walled kitchen gives the room a dramatic up-market look. There are new items to try and menu symbols that indicate dishes appropriate for vegans. Prices, amazingly, seem about the same.
Alex, who serves as host while Ooi directs the kitchen, roams the room doling out lore and ingredient information about the dishes on the already-descriptive menu.
Prefacing the menu's southern entries is a disclaimer: "Items under this category are considered 'too spicy' for average Americans." But that's not the case for most Lum-Ka-Naad customers.
Sure, the kuah gling, southern-style dry meat curry, and kuah gling kra dook moo — chile-doused pork ribs speckled with kaffir lime — have the explosive effect of a depth charge. But wrap chunks of them in the accompanying spinach or cabbage leaves with herbs and rice and the sparks will mellow, compelling even the uninitiated to keep eating and eating.
Plenty of mildly seasoned dishes will balance a meal's flavorings. Hakka-style noodles with ground meat-stuffed tofu triangles or the creamy coconut-based noodle dish khaw sawy, for instance. Or go for slightly more burn with the dazzling tom yum pork noodle, afloat with crispy fried pork belly squares, lean ground pork patties, shrimp, meatballs and a sprinkling of crunchy ground peanut topping — a textural symphony.
Ooi's version of the jasmine rice-based salad, khao yam budu, the ultimate in salty-sweet tartness, comes as a kaleidoscopic arrangement of cut vegetables, toasted coconut, ground dried shrimp and more, all dotted with fruity pummelo chunks that burst juicy droplets as you eat. Diners customize the heat by adding chile flakes to suit their taste.
Thais consider northern food mild — a relative term when you consider that chile-laden nam phriks, the dips for sticky rice and vegetables, accompany every meal.
Nam phrik awng, eaten almost daily in many households, is Thailand's answer to Texas' "bowl of red" — ground pork in a tomato-based sauce alive with a slow burn of dried chile. Nam phrik num, another standby, combines various types of roasted green fresh chiles, while phrik hyum relies on smoked fish and chiles for its impact.
On the other hand, northern curries, though boldly flavored, generate little heat. Hefty lean pork chunks under a julienne of fresh ginger populate lanna hingleh, infused with Thai-Burmese seasonings. Its beefy equivalent kaeng oom nua sparkles with the perfume of kaffir lime leaves.
Dive in. Eat the traditional way with your fingers, pressing morsels against ovals of warm sticky rice with fresh herbs. From the house-made regional sausages to the green jackfruit and the sassy tart green mango salad enriched with toasted coconut, this menu is filled with a fabulousness that suits our growing love for aggressive flavors.
Location: 8910 Reseda Blvd., Northridge, (818) 882-3028.
Prices: Entrees, $5.95 to $13.95; appetizers, salads and soups, $5.25 to 10.95; noodles, $6.95 to $10.95.
Details: Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Credit cards accepted. No alcohol. Lot behind restaurant and street parking.