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Thai Food in Pacific Beach : Asia’s Fieriest Fare, and Some of Subtlest

Read history as if it were a menu and you may decide that Christopher Columbus not only failed in his mission, but also achieved exactly the opposite of his goal.

Columbus sailed West in search of Indian peppercorns, which then were about as valuable as gold. Instead of cruising into the Bay of Bengal, though, Columbus tootled about the margins of the Gulf of Mexico, where he and the Europeans who followed encountered American peppers.

Only a few of the milder varieties (such as bell peppers) found an audience in Europe, but Asia embraced the hotter ones so wholeheartedly that one wonders how India, Thailand and Indochina ever survived the preceding pepper-less millennia. Thus, what was to have flowed from Asia to Europe instead went from America to the Orient.

This route has been reversed of late. Although Louisiana and parts of the Southwest have always had a taste for American peppers, it is only recently that the United States at large has come to appreciate them. Thai, Vietnamese and other Asian restaurateurs have taken up the burden of reintroducing this country to a range of fiery seasonings with which it always could have been familiar.

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Pepper Champs

The Thais probably are the world’s pepper champs; they have cultivated varieties that by comparison make the Mexican jalapeno seem as bland as broccoli. Tiny snippets of these lurk in some soups like submerged mines waiting to ambush unwary taste buds, and the experience is unforgettable, if not exactly pleasant.

Karinya, the attractive Thai restaurant in Pacific Beach, will cheerfully serve incendiary foods, but it does accommodate American tongues by offering dishes in mild, medium and hot versions.

Be forewarned that the scale is Thai rather than American, and by hot, the restaurant means that it would make a native of Bangkok reach for the nearest jug of ice water. A dish ordered “mild-medium” (an equivocation the kitchen will attempt to achieve) comes out approximately as hot as a good Mexican mole .

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If Karinya’s dishes are full of heat, its menu is full of surprises, because one can browse through it and find thoroughly Thai dishes that are inadvertent approximations of Rice Krispies and beef Stroganoff. Mee krob , for example, the popular dish of crunchy noodles in sweet sauce that snaps, crackles and pops when chewed, approximates that all-American favorite combination of texture and taste--it is crisp and sugary.

The addition of shrimp and bean sprouts make the dish distinctively Thai. In the case of the wonderful curry called panang nuah , substitute sour cream for the coconut milk, and paprika for the chilies and spices, and the result would be beef Stroganoff. This creamy dish is one of Karinya’s most outstanding preparations and a wonder of subtlety, since, like other Thai curries, the spices (if not the chilies) are used with restraint.

Herbs, especially mint and a particularly intense type of basil, often are added by the handful, and they bring a particularly brisk and refreshing note to both salads and cooked dishes. Peppers are used rather like painters use their more vivid paints, in order to throw the lighter, more delicate shades into relief.

The rainbow effect of flavors that can be produced by herbs in combination with peppers shows up in such dishes as yum nuah , a grilled beef salad that incorporates mint, lemon and peppers as heighteners of the base ingredients of beef, cucumbers and greens.

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The Final Kick

A similar and delightfully savory dish goes by the name of Chiang Mai Delight and consists of sauteed ground pork tossed with peanuts, slivered red onions, lemon and chilies.

The red onion gives this dish its final kick and also, in relation to the other ingredients, seems somewhat cooling. It seems rather remarkable that onion can play such a role, but this is a powerful dish.

Thai cooking by no means excludes mild dishes, and it can range to great pungency, especially in the case of soups. The menu at Karinya has admirable depth and offers plenty of choice in the not-hot categories.

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Many starters are mild, such as the ever-popular satay , or skewers of grilled beef, chicken or pork served with a savory peanut sauce; the Thai spring rolls, a delicate variation on the Chinese egg roll that includes a filling of thread noodles, vegetables and minced pork; the “lotus cups,” or flaky pastries stuffed with a lightly curried filling of chicken and potatoes, and the Thai toast, another variant on Chinese cuisine that deep-fries triangles of bread that have been spread with a paste of pounded shrimp, pork and egg.

Soups can be so sour as to induce a semi-permanent pucker. The list starts with tom yum gai , a hot-and-sour chicken soup perked with lemon grass, a flavoring that adds a potent lemon note. This is good, but the related tom kah gai offers an even more unusual and intense experience, because it is smoothed with coconut milk and heightened with garanga root, a chewy substance with a pungent flavor all its own.

Like Chinese restaurants that offer different meats in the same style, Karinya’s menu often repeats itself, although it does offer a brief specialties list that includes artichokes stuffed with seafood curry (this dish requires advance notice); rama , a dish of marinated meats on a bed of broccoli and sliced eggs, the whole dressed with spicy peanut sauce, and gang quah , a rather playful curry of shrimp and pineapple.

Standard Entrees

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The standard entree lists offer pork, chicken, beef and shrimp as gratiem (sauteed with garlic and black pepper); pad ped , or seasoned with Thai basil, garlic and freshly ground chilies; and graprow , a similar treatment that substitutes mint for the basil.

The curries are more interesting, such as the gang ped , or tender bits of boned leg meat swimming in a sauce of red curry paste leavened with coconut milk. Red curry paste, an intricate and subtle blend of flavors that is not particularly hot, also enters the prig king moo , a pleasant combination of pork and green beans. Green curry paste, an altogether different item, gives a lively and likable flavor to the kiew wan kung , yet another Karinya curry that is tamed with coconut milk.

The menu concludes with several mixed-vegetable dishes and a short list of noodles. These last normally would not be eaten with a meal that also included rice (bowls of delicate basmati rice accompany all entrees, and will be refilled if necessary), but they are in any case worth trying.

The “drunken” noodles pursue the mint-chili bent of other courses, but an entirely different effect is achieved by the goy cee mee , or delicate, fettuccine-like noodles blended with a sweet brown sauce and a garden of vegetables. Both dishes can be enriched with a meat of choice, if desired.

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Dairy products are rare in Thailand, but Karinya offers a non-dairy “ice cream” concocted from coconut milk mixed with sweetenings and Oriental fruit.

The consistency is a little rough, but the flavor is rather sprightly, and cooling after all those chilies.

KARINYA

4475 Mission Blvd.

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270-5050

Lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday, closed Monday.

Credit cards accepted.

Dinner for two, including a glass of wine each, tax and tip, about $25 to $40.

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