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RESTAURANT REOPENING TRULY A BANNER EVENT

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There it was, a big banner telling the world that at last Thien Thanh was reopening, hanging right over the bright blue awnings ( thien thanh is Vietnamese for “azure blue”) in full confidence that the world would care. As a matter of fact, it evidently does. The place was packed.

A good sign, and the menu was promising, no mere list of noodle soups but a substantial choice of well over 150 dishes ranging in exoticism from spring rolls to “Roasted Beef (wrapped) around by Pig’s fat cover.” (I assume that means wrapped in caul fat, a sort of high-class equivalent of sausage skin.)

The people are friendly but it seems not to have occurred to them to serve anything other than what they actually like themselves, whether that means ice cubes in your beer or a sort of cross between a milkshake and a sundae made out of beans for dessert. So be it. When I want to eat exotic, I want to eat exotic.

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They do have a lengthy selection of the usual noodle dishes, though you have to be alert to the fact that under the category “White & Egg Noodles Soup” are included some non-soup items such as spring rolls and the quaintly named “Thien Thanh’s Pork Rice Flour Pie”--a sort of taco about the size of a three-egg omelet, made of a huge rice flour tortilla, fried (with onions, some of which are fried into the surface) and filled with bean sprouts, onions and pork. What do you do with it? This is a Vietnamese restaurant. You cut off a piece, wrap it up in romaine lettuce and dip it in sweet and sour fish sauce.

There are rice dishes, too, of course, including weird and wonderful things such as “Roasted pork, Pig’s skin egg cake, broken rice,” which is the world’s best char-broiled pork, some sliced chicken (I think) and a sort of enjoyably greasy-starchy meat loaf tasting like English sausage filling (apparently the “Pig’s skin egg cake,” unless that sliced stuff wasn’t chicken), all arranged on a bowl of the world’s most aromatic rice.

The menu is mostly arranged according to the informing ingredient of the dishes. Incidentally, in the shrimp section are included a couple of crayfish specialties (including barbecued crayfish); these are kind of tricky to get out of their shells and cut into reasonable portions so you can wrap them up in romaine and a translucent sheet of “rice paper.”

There’s no way to try everything on a menu this size, but a lot of the old favorites are here: ground shrimp barbecued on sugar cane, salt and pepper pork ribs (with a little taste of coconut on them) and clay pot fish, here called cooked salted fish, a delicious version with the fish bones practically melting in the rich soy and fish sauce gravy. Some are not quite what you’d think. Five-spice roast chicken was actually sauteed with celery and carrots and a lot of oil, and two of the spices were definitely cumin and cardamom, making this roast five-spicer rather like a curry.

Rare pan beef with lemon juice is well named--slightly fried tender beef with onion slices (pickled onion, I’ll wager) and chopped peanuts, flavored with lime (not lemon) juice, served with a slightly sweet fish sauce for dipping. Cooked crab with vinegar seemed to be that old Vietnamese favorite salty crab, here not fried in butter but served in a slightly sweetened bean sauce with a distinct vinegar flavor. There are some strange squashes and other vegetables involved, too, and it’s a generous portion.

My favorite was “Combination of Eel and Banana Buds.” It turned out to be the Vietnamese equivalent of a Mongolian Hot Pot: a soup kettle pierced by a chimney packed full of burning charcoal briquettes. What was cooking in it was a sweet-sour soup flavored with pineapple and crammed with vegetables, the most mysterious being what looked at first glance like pink ginger. These had a pleasantly tart leafy taste; must have been the banana buds. The “eel” seemed to be saury, a fish which several Vietnamese places use in lieu of real eel.

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The dessert selection takes the form of iced drinks. Some are exotic, if healthful, such as “Special Tricolors Drink,” a sort of milkshake with both red and green beans and “Jelly dry plum lotus seed & drink in a glass,” which tastes like raisins in strong, sweetened lapsang soochong tea. Some others are fruit in light syrup, but to me the most successful desserts are the shakes made from tropical fruits such as the delicious custard apple.

Prices are reasonable, as they usually are at Vietnamese places: rice and noodle dishes, including soups, run $2.50 to $4.50, entrees $4.50 to $14.95.

THIEN THANH

5423 West 1st St., Santa Ana

(714) 554-7260

Open for lunch and dinner Monday through Friday, for breakfast, lunch and dinner Friday and Saturday. No credit cards.

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