SOMETIMES what happens is that the food at a neighborhood restaurant is so good (even if it's not fancy) that the get-together takes on a special glow.
At Nakkara on Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles, witty remarks seem wittier because the tofu tower appetizer -- crisp fried tofu sandwiched between slices of cucumber -- is bright and surprising, with a sweet-sour tamarind sauce, hot slivers of onion and toasty bits of peanut to keep your attention focused on the changing flavors. Or maybe a sharp-tongued comment is inspired by the nuanced tart-fiery green papaya salad, so perfectly spiced with chiles and lime that you can hold the hot happiness in your mouth through a long, lovely finish.
It might seem when you eat here that your thought-provoking discussion doesn't meander but instead unwinds purposefully as speakers layer thoughts in logical harmony, like that found in Nakkara's simple, subtle fried rice, every grain articulated, infused with broth and stirred together with delicately braised vegetables.
Fantasy? Perhaps, but this place inspires a meet-me-there loyalty that's seemingly out of proportion to its storefront urban-central facade.
The room is spare and comfortable, but the most remarkable points of décor (a grand floral arrangement, a futuristic industrial wall sculpture) are questionably exuberant. The menu's message is moderately ambitious -- you're eating "Thai-inspired cuisine" -- but it's just a bit kitschy, listing dishes as "Delicious Works of Art" with subheadings such as "From Our Blue Canvas" (seafood).
The loyalty comes from that obvious but elusive accomplishment: It's where you want to be to connect with friends or a lover over a meal. Nakkara makes it easy.
LOCATED IN a neighborhood that's not under-served when it comes to restaurants, Nakkara's just down the street from Cobras & Matadors. It knows its locals eat out often and, without being "high-end," offers the niceties that make an evening work: a valet parking stand ($5), handsome plates and artful presentation, no corkage fee although nice glassware is on hand.
And there's dim sum on Sundays and free delivery ($15 minimum) within a three-mile radius.
Dishes are mostly twists on Thai and Chinese favorites, with a sprinkling of Cal-cuisine variations. They're executed with a smart personal aesthetic.
As familiar a dish as chicken larb (minced chicken with mint, shallots and the ubiquitous chile-lime combo) is a sprightly beginning here, at first almost a shock of flavor.
An appetizer sampler of chicken satay, dumplings, spring roll and crunchy prawn might have been perfunctory but is a real conversation starter. "What's in this remarkable peanut sauce?" one of our party asks. "When was the last time you had such fresh shrimp," wonders another.
Me, I'm just beginning to understand, for the first time in my embarrassingly long life, why fried shrimp is considered a good thing.
The cooking's very clean; essential flavor components -- basil, mint, chile, lime -- are wonderfully clear and direct. Steamed halibut with ginger sauce is fragrant with galangal, the aroma-infused fish presented on a row of white and green baby bok choy. Smoked lamb is a stellar dish, tender but toothsome chunks of richly gamy meat counterpointed by pickled vegetables.
Sweet finishes vary with the season, with mangoes figuring on occasion (say "yes" when that happens). Lunch combos ($8 to $12) might lift one's spirits on a workday.
Dim sum on Sundays is a dandy choice, a non-hurly-burly approach to the experience. You're offered a sheet like a sushi list and check off items, mostly priced below $5 per order.
The choices are a fun combination of dumplings, buns, wraps and small plates. Not all are as stellar as the restaurant's dinner dishes, but it's easy to find favorites among good, interesting versions of stuffed mushroom caps, fried calamari, very flavorful seafood or an unusual seaweed shiu mai, lotus sticky rice (like a Thai tamale, steamed in a banana leaf), and spicy salted shrimp (again fresh and excellent).
And there just might be a few that help give the moment that special glow.
Nakkara on Beverly Location: 7669 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 937-3100; www.nakkaraonbeverly.com.Price: Appetizers, $6 to $9; sampler platters, $13 to $14; salads, $9 to $10; noodles, $9; entrees, $9 to $25.Best dishes: Chicken larb, tofu tower, green papaya salad, smoked lamb, halibut ginger.Details: Open daily from 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Valet parking, $5. Major credit cards. BYOB, no corkage fee.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times