Morning Glory Nights

Ruen Pair has pretty much everything you'd want in a Hollywood Thai restaurant at 3 in the morning: interesting food, a guarded parking lot, a scruffy late-night scene. The place shares a mini-mall with a Laundromat, a doughnut shop and a popular Thai nightclub; almost empty at 8 p.m., it picks up momentum at 10 and becomes packed by midnight.

At Ruen Pair, there are actually two menus: one a standard pad Thai /cashew-chicken takeout sheet, a buff-colored two-page job that non-Thais are pretty much automatically given; the other a yellow four-page menu that lists the restaurant's real specialties--and translates them all. The weakest dishes in the restaurant--goopy noodles, indifferent stir-fries, insipid soups--are all on the first menu. You will probably have to ask for the yellow menu, but it's worth the trouble.

Ruen Pair is one of the best Thai-Chinese places in town. Its strong, clean flavors are overlaid with a characteristic Thai funkiness, and its casualness of presentation is strictly Chinese. In non-noodle-shop Thai restaurants, most of the Thai regulars eat Thai style, with spoon and fork; at Ruen Pair, almost everybody uses chopsticks. Fried flower stems are typically Thai-Chinese; so are anise-scented roast fowl and fried Chinese sausage.

As you walk into the place around 2 a.m., you can look across the crowded tables, past the fish tank, toward the blaring TV, and everybody is eating more or less the same thing: omelets and morning-glory stems. The omelets are the flat, crisp, well-done Thai kind, fried in oil, frizzled brown at the edges, studded with firm fragments of coarsely chopped shrimp, little cubes of turnip or a handful of peppery ground pork--not unlike streamlined versions of an Italian frittata, without the mellowness or the height. With the omelet comes a small dish of fire-red chile sauce, a little dab of which goes a long way.

The morning glory stems are hollow little things, slightly crunchy, with almost a peppery watercress sweetness, fried with an immoderate amount of garlic and bursting with green juice. Morning glory becomes even better if you drizzle on a bit of vinegary fish sauce, enlivened with a confetti of chopped bird peppers, which acts much the same as pepper vinegar does for soul-food collard greens. (As far as I've been able to tell, the dish has none of the narcotic effects for which morning glory was esteemed in the '60s. Tastes pretty good, though.)

You will also use the vinegar dip with "goose stew," roast goose, golden-skinned, richly flavored, scented with star anise and cloves, better than at any Chiu Chow dive in Los Angeles; great Chinese food with a distinctive Thai twist. The "duck stew" is tasty too, if less unusual. Among the soups is a strange, delicious potage of pork broth, ground pork and puckery, salt-preserved vegetables.

Salads include firm, gelatinous slivers of preserved egg, translucent black, hotly spiced with chile, dressed with lime, arranged around a heap of red onion, cilantro and chiles; salty, pungent bits of preserved fish, fried until friable and tossed like croutons into a delicious Thai salad; raw, marinated shrimp, slick and scented with chile and lime, slightly chewy, arranged spoke-like atop a bed of lettuce.

Sweet Chinese sausages are sliced thinly and fried into chips, too crisp to pierce with a fork and impossible to resist. Crumbles of ground pork are sauteed with Chinese preserved olives, which have the spongy texture and gamy, intensely salty smack of the burnt Kalamatas that stick out of the top of La Brea Bakery's olive bread: a spectacular dish.

Some Thai people have warned my friends off Ruen Pair for years, claiming it was somehow "inauthentic." It is authentic--authentic Thai-Chinese.

Ruen Pair Restaurant

5257 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 466-0153. Open Wednesday-Monday 6 p.m. to 4 a.m. Cash only. No alcohol. Takeout. Lot parking. Dinner for two, food only, $9-$15.

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