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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Thai Restaurants Offer Home Spices Amid Mild Fare for Americans

It happened in the ‘70s when nobody was really looking: Thai restaurants displaced the Cantonese kitchens of our childhoods and became the supreme source of inexpensive, Far Eastern ethnic food.

Those who have been to Thailand know that food there is indigenously spicy and includes many ingredients (pork blood, fish maws) that Americans regard with suspicion. But take out the unusual stuff--and most of the chili--and Thai cuisine becomes as easy to eat as the chow mein, chop suey, and egg flower soup we baby boomers were weaned on.

The most popular Thai foods-- mee grob, satay, phad thai --are indeed the least spicy and exotic dishes. But adventurous diners need not despair: There is enough range in Thai cooking and, Lord knows, enough Thai restaurants, that it’s possible to find something to suit just about every palate without leaving the San Fernando Valley.

Arunee House in Toluca Lake is a comfortable restaurant, with red banquettes, rosewood chairs, and lots of Thai trinkets and geegaws. Lunch sees some of the studio crowd and dinner, a casual group of neighborhood regulars. The menu includes Thai and Chinese dishes and the kitchen definitely tempers its seasonings to American tastes.

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“Americans can’t eat food so hot like we do,” our waitress tells us. The Big Noodles, indeed, could offend nobody, with their good sweet shrimp, slabs of bright orange carrots, broccoli blanched a startling green and a completely mild cornstarch/bean gravy.

Overall, Arunee’s ingredients are consistently fresh and well-prepared, and the heat factor is pretty low. Dishes starred as spicy--the spicy squid or the crab noodles, for example--aren’t seriously hot. I begged them for heat once, and they gave me larb so hot and sour and delicious, I had to shed a few happy heat-inspired tears. Another time, when I just said, “I’d like some larb, " I ended up with something like a cilantro-flavored sloppy-Joe base.

Arunee does have absolutely, hands-down, the best batter-fried bananas I’ve ever had. The service, too, is particularly attentive.

Arunee House, 10140 Riverside Dr., Toluca Lake. (818) 760-9074 and (818) 766-1881. Open daily, Saturday-Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Beer and wine. All major credit cards. Dinner for two, food only, $10 to $35.

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Another neighborhood favorite--in a different neighborhood--is Anajak Thai in Sherman Oaks. Anajak’s tiny, narrow room has dark blue walls decorated with lattice arches, blue tablecloths, bentwood chairs and a peculiar orange glow that emanates from ceiling spotlights and a big orange neon “OPEN"sign in the window. The background music is Mozart and Bach and, in general, the ambiance is tropical/colonial, intimate, informal, and comfortable.

The kitchen leans toward a savory heartiness of flavor that’s particularly noticeable in the egg rolls, barbecued ribs and sauced entrees. I love the Anajak chicken, a dark-gravied, full-bodied, spicy chicken with cashews--when combined with the red-chili rice with mint, one gets a goodly dose of Thai heat.

We were surprised to see tempura, which is Japanese, but were delighted with the battered vegetables that came with the tasty goong bacon (bacon-wrapped shrimp). Other dishes, the phad thai and yum y ai salad, are classic examples of good, non-confrontational American/Thai food.

Still other dishes disappoint: Coconut chicken soup is thin and dull, and the goong pao (large grilled prawns) turns out to be only two middling-large shrimp that taste burnt and cost $10.

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However, the kai ho kao phoad, chicken cooked in corn husks, is succulent; the cleverly folded triangular packets are tricky to open, but who cares when the result is this chunk of moist, luscious marinated chicken that, thanks to the corn husk, tastes a little like a tamale?

Anajak Thai, 14704 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. (818) 501-4201. Open for lunch Tuesday-Friday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner Tuesday-Thursday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., Friday 5 to 11 p.m., Saturday 4 to 11 p.m., Sunday 4 to 10 p.m. Closed Monday. Beer and wine. All major credit cards. Dinner for two, food only, $12 to $35.

We like kai ho kao phoad so much, we’re not particularly surprised that the next time we see the cunning little chicken packets, they’re an offering at the shrine of the Brahma at the Bangluck plaza in North Hollywood. The golden four-armed deity, guarded by rows of brass and wooden elephants and festooned with thick ropes of plastic flowers, sits a few feet away from the Sanamluang Cafe, which is surely the most authentic Thai restaurant we visit on this survey.

It’s a big, pastel, low-budget place, a study in fast-food-postmodernism, with colorful, wacky linoleum, black metal bentwood chairs with chartreuse seats. Most of the customers and all of the waitresses are Thai, and while there’s a bit of a language barrier, it does nothing to prevent us from doing some serious eating.

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The portions are huge, the prices low: The most expensive items on the menu are $4.50. The amenities are minimal--silverware and plates are provided in a tidy heap when you sit down. But the delights and/or adventures are many.

We ask for a vegetarian phad thai and they bring a wonderful, peanut-topped noodle with wild mushrooms and deliciously seasoned fried tofu. As is typical in Thailand, each table has various condiments--peanuts, chili oil, red chili sauce, jalapenos, dried chilies--so each dish can be dolled up to suit individual tastes.

During our first meal there, we have some communication errors and end up with No. 8 instead of No. 52. Lucky us. Eight is a rice biscuit fried with radish, green onion, bean sprouts and egg. While rice biscuits are, like eggplant, sponges for oil, they’re chewy and soft, sort of like fried grits, only better, and are served with a thick sweet black bean sauce.

On our next visit, No. 52 proves to be big thick flat rice noodles scrambled with egg, squid and shrimp; they’re wonderfully gelatinous and chewy and receptive to all sorts of chili sauces. However, the dish that will draw us back to the Sanamluang again and again is yum-pla-krob (smoked fish salad with shallots, chili and mint); the smoked fish is deep-fried, bones and all, making a wonderful smoky crunchiness in a completely refreshing hot-sour lime dressing with fresh red onions and mint leaves.

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Some dishes, frankly, we don’t know how to eat; the som tom , a salad of shredded green papaya and dried shrimp, for example, arrives with a wedge of cabbage. At our request, the waitress, laughing merrily, demonstrates that each bite of salad is followed by a bite of cabbage.

As much as we learn in several visits to the Sanamluang Cafe, and as much as we enjoy it, there are still menu items we don’t yet have the courage to order: special gravy with fish maws, soups that incorporate jelly fish or pork blood, duck feet stew . . . and most particularly, “assorted vegetarians over rice.”

Sanamluang Cafe, 12980 Sherman Way, North Hollywood, (818) 764-1180. Open daily, 10 a.m. to midnight. Beer and wine. Dinner for two, food only, $8 to $25.


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