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RESTAURANTS / Max Jacobson : Thai Eatery’s the Best, Despite Slow Service

The best Thai restaurant in Orange County is a no-frills takeout joint (with an attached dining room) called Thai Nakorn in Buena Park. On any given night of the week, one can find a substantial percentage of the area’s Thai population scrambling for tables there.

Thai Nakorn specializes in the fare of northeast Thailand, the provinces next to Cambodia that are now notorious for refugee camps, military personnel and a generally edgy citizenry. It’s also known for having some of the country’s hottest cooking, full of scorching chilies, pungent lime juice and the sweet complexities of lemon grass, fresh mint and coconut milk. It’s glorious.

The dining room is modest--tiny booths, little glass-top tables, straw place mats. Flea market paintings of Thai village life hang above each table. A TV blares in the rear of the room.

As you walk through the takeout entrance, you will probably see what seem like hordes of kitchen help juggling pans, chopping meat or stacking barbecued chicken on top of the undersized grill. And you also notice that this might just be the only Thai restaurant in Orange County that doesn’t use a wok. That could explain why the service is so slow.

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When it comes to the service, you have to be forgiving or run the risk of letting the waiters at this restaurant raise your blood pressure a lot more than even the hottest chili. It’s possible to sit for 20 minutes before a waiter--the one wearing a baseball cap who likes to chat with his friends, say--comes over to take your order. Or, you might get an order of barbecued chicken brought with the check after another waiter--the one who likes to call you “boss"--decides you are finally ready for it. That’s what happened to me, at least.

However maddening the service, the food here is worth the aggravation. For instance, Thai Nakorn’s version of pad Thai-- fried noodles with chicken, shrimp, bean sprouts, crushed peanut, lime juice and plenty of chili--is the best I’ve ever eaten.

But the real adventure here is a long list of specialties, the source of this restaurant’s appeal to local Thai people. Salads are particularly alluring. Thai Nakorn’s special is a barbecued shrimp salad with onion, mint and chili. The shrimps taste as if they have been smoked slowly for days. The greens are hotter than a Bangkok summer.

Larb (ground meat, in this case) can be made in your choice of liver, beef, chicken or pork mixed with brown rice, onions, chili and abundant lime juice. The locals like to eat the stuff with their fingers, but I don’t think I’d be up to that task without protective gloves.

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Not everything is quite so hot, of course, particularly when it comes to snacks. Nuah dad deaw is a dried salty beef resembling large chunks of beef jerky with the faint aftertaste of fresh fish. Together with a bottle of lightly brewed Bangkok beer, the dish makes one of the most appetizing beginnings I know of. Tod mun resemble large fish cakes and have a subtle, aromatic spicing. Cold green beans and a wonderful curry paste are served on the side.

The regular menu runs the usual gamut of red and green curries, noodle and rice dishes, barbecued meats and fish. I liked the barbecued catfish, chicken fried noodles with lettuce (both mild), and the exquisite tom yum --hot and sour Thai soups made with coconut milk. The exotic tom kroung nai voi soup, a heart-y beef broth with ginger, mint and chili is an acquired taste to most non-Thais. It’s best described as Thai menudo , except it has a lot more heart . . . literally.

Have one of the waiters (preferably the outfielder) go through the specials board for you. It’s written in Thai, and you won’t want to miss out. If he has time, he’ll go through the dishes (there are 20 or so) one by one. If not, he’ll just recommend two or three. The ones I tasted were terrific. Spicy clams and finely minced eel were loaded with ginger, mint and an unctuous red curry paste. Thai barbecued sausage, a wonderful dish that tastes almost Western, was even better. Thais eat it in cabbage leaves with a hot pepper sauce.

I tried and failed to order fresh frog sauteed with green curry. As I began to nod enthusiastically in favor of the dish, the other waiter (“yes, boss”) stepped in, spread his arms like an umpire signaling safe, and flashed the big smile. That was the end of the frog for us.

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Make sure to order sweet rice with whatever you choose. This is typical of northeast Thailand (it is often called sticky rice); diners roll the rice into little balls and dip them into the sauces. It is served steaming in a woven bamboo crock and every Thai family eating here had at least one crock on the table.

Desserts aren’t much at Thai Nakorn, but there is one to remember. It is called lachang in Thai, and is based on slippery green noodles made from corn starch and pandan leaf. The noodles are mixed with coconut milk and palm sugar, then thrown into a bowl with crushed ice. Perhaps you’ve heard of it as cendol in Malaysia or Indonesia. By any name, it is one of the most refreshing, sumptuous desserts on Earth.

Thai Nakorn is inexpensive to moderate and an excellent value for such consistent quality. Appetizers are all $4.75. Salads are $4.75-$8.50. Soups are $4.75-$5.75. Most main dishes are $4.75, but some specials run as high as $15. Noodle dishes are $4.50.

THAI NAKORN

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8674 Stanton Ave., Buena Park

(714) 952-4954

Open Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Closed Monday

Diner’s Club, MasterCard and Visa accepted

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