Thai Original BBQ, one of the Southland's more prolific Asian restaurant chains, can be counted on for clean-tasting, relatively tame Thai food. At the Studio City branch, the waiters will look mildly shocked if you ask for a jar of chile paste . . . and almost as surprised if you tell them to hold the sugar in your stir-fry.
It's a small but spaciously designed place of track lighting and stainless-steel chairs, with fresh anthurium shooting out of tall vases on every table. I wish they would turn down the roaring air conditioner a bit, but I must say restaurants on the Sukhumvit Soi in central Bangkok also feature a blast of icy air. In a way, it's the most authentic thing about the restaurant.
Not that there aren't some delicious dishes here. Perhaps the least Americanized is larb: chicken or beef ground into coarse chunks, mixed with rice powder, dried chiles, mint leaves and lime juice and eaten in lettuce leaves. The chicken larb is particularly good.
The spicy shrimp soup doesn't pull any punches either. It's a hot-and-sour-style soup with plenty of shrimp, fresh mushrooms and lemon grass. (I do miss the flavor of galangal root that you get in Thai dives on Hollywood Boulevard, but I'm not complaining.)
This chain has built its reputation on barbecued meats, and most are quite reliable. The barbecued chicken (kai yang) is crusty with ginger, garlic and coriander but never dried out. The garlic short ribs, finished in a sweet sauce of dark soy, garlic and black pepper, are meltingly tender.
I would pass on Thai barbecued spareribs, though. They're oily, gristly and so sweet your teeth will ring.
For that matter, if overt sweetness bothers you, avoid the honey duck, the stir-fried vegetable dishes (which rely on heaps of added sugar) and most of the noodle dishes, particularly the cloying pad Thai.
One noodle dish that does have some subtlety is pad woon sen, for which transparent "bean thread" noodles are lightly tossed with shrimp, tomatoes, onions and strips of fried egg.
I'd be content to make a meal of appetizers and salads here, using the larb as the starting point.
The kitchen makes a fine chicken shish kebab (sate), a delicious Thai beef salad (yum neua) and arguably the best crab-stuffed mushrooms in town.
Life can be sweet on Ventura Boulevard. And if you're careful, not too sweet.
Thai Original BBQ, 12254 Ventura Blvd., Studio City. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Street parking. Beer and wine only. All major cards. Dinner for two, $19-$36. Suggested dishes: larb, $5.95; sate, $7.50; spicy shrimp soup, $7.50; Thai BBQ chicken, $5.95; garlic short ribs, $5.95. Call (818) 763-7711.