Beach Boulevard, as it cuts though Buena Park, may be the closest thing in the Southland to the cheerful vulgarity of the Vegas Strip, speckled with soaring dinner-theater castles and cavernous wax museums, lined with chain restaurants and giant neon motels that have high ratings from the Triple-A. The cumulative effect of it all is to make you feel, as you cruise down the street, that you are as small as a 4-year-old.
Beach is anchored by Knott's Berry Farm, whose glowing "K" and roller coasters can be glimpsed from far away. Hobby City, a sort of mall located a few miles down the road, features a teddy-bear emporium set into an out-sized hollow tree, a doll museum set in a replica of the White House, and a store devoted to muzzle-loading rifles. Catercorner to Knott's, at least until they tore it down several years ago, the Alligator Farm used to be a prime center of All-American reptilian fun. It's not far from Disneyland. And there's always Adultland.
A stone's throw away from Knott's, right next to the famous signboard that Love's Barbecue shares with the local outpost of Jenny Craig, sits what is conceivably the most exotic restaurant in Orange County, a truly authentic Isaan-style Thai place. Thai Nakorn occupies what looks like a converted steakhouse--wood-paneling, red-leather booths, mounted animal heads--except that the chairs are the elegantly carved Thai type, and Thai-style hot-pots are piled high in the open kitchen. Plus, the chalkboard specials are all in Thai, and run more toward the anchovy dip than toward the surf 'n turf platter. (Thai Nakorn is distantly related to the slightly better Renu Nakorn, in Norwalk, and has a branch of its own in Laguna Hills.)
Isaan cuisine, the cooking of Northeastern Thailand, is fresh and clean and blisteringly hot, dominated by the flavors of lime juice, garlic and toasted rice, grounded by animal pungencies and the bite of fresh herbs. And at Thai Nakorn, of course, you can get the usual Thai stir-fries and mee krob noodles, but it's the Isaan dishes that make the place worth a trip. Some of them are on the menu, and a few of them you'll have to get a waiter to translate for you. It's worth the effort.
The first thing about Isaan cooking is the chile-hot salads, larbs , in which the primary ingredient is minced fine with herbs, and yums , which are more like traditional salads. Thai Nakorn has a superbly gamy grilled-beef salad; a minced-catfish salad with a richly marine taste; a spicy tongue salad. Nam sod , which, at the time at least, can seem like the most delicious thing you've ever eaten in your life, is sort of a garlicky, salty pork salad that's crunchy with toasted rice and tart with lime, shot through with toasted peanut nubs--it's like the world's best bar snack, perfect with a cold Singha beer. There are warm, sour strands of shredded bamboo shoot salad, gritty with dried chile, that you roll into a ball with sticky rice and eat with your fingers. (Actually, all the salads are great with sticky rice, which is served here in a traditional woven basket.) The squid salad is fine too.
Barbecued chicken, an apparent specialty, is nice if unexceptional--you'll find it on the tables of most of the Thai customers. Barbecued squid, a giant, smoky steak tender as butter, is wonderful.
Ask a waiter for guidance. One day, a waitress suggested "tuna" from the special board, which turned out to be a small fish, the size of a telephone receiver, that had been deep-fried in a delicate, paper-thin membrane of batter. It was served with quick-steamed vegetables, a couple of golfball-size raw eggplant and a pungent fermented-anchovy dip, and seemed closer to certain Cambodian dishes than to anything I've ever been served in a Thai restaurant. I adored it, though the dip might be a little too strong-tasting for some people.
We had gaeng liang , a mild, Isaan-style shrimp soup full of flavorful squashes, and nuah dad deaw, a garlicky sort of beef jerky that came with a smoky chile dip. There was a fried "blackfish," about 90% crunch, sauced with a mint-chile goop that could probably make adobe bricks into a palatable entree, and "white pork," probably belly pork, that was sweet and unctuous as a Wayne Newton show, but a lot hotter.
The desserts, a far cry from jackfruit ice cream, include slippery green grass-jelly noodles in a sweet coconut broth, and a warm, salty-sweet broth filled with different kinds of delicious slime . . . probably not the best things to eat before getting on a roller-coaster.
Thai Nakorn, 8674 Stanton Ave., Buena Park, (714) 952-4954. Open Sunday-Thursday 10:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Friday-Saturday to 11 p.m. Beer and wine. Takeout. Lot parking. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $15-$25.