For this column, I've reviewed restaurants based out of the loading areas of grocery stores. I've written about spots in gang-infested neighborhoods, in soulless South County cities, in shabby strip malls and abandoned shopping plazas. I might highlight a dive that's nothing more than a tent strung up from the side of a dry cleaner. But Lanta Thai Fusion easily wins the title for Worst Restaurant Location in OC. It's in a faux-adobe business park on Katella Avenue, between Glassell and Cambridge streets, the one you've sped past numerous times on the way to the 55 freeway, only noticing the giant sign for Saffron Grill. You can try to park on the street and enter from what's technically the back of the place—but parking there is only for an hour and almost always occupied. Lanta's real entrance is found only by hanging a right at the liquor store down the street, then going through a dark alley that leads to a darker parking lot. There, you'll have to walk past scowling men who just finished washing their chonis at the next-door Laundromat.
It's a shame because Lanta is a fabulous Thai restaurant, going beyond the pad Thai to try to offer a refined experience for mainstream audiences that doesn't water down the flavors. Flat-screen televisions hang above diners; one wall supports a communal booth that spans the length of the L-shaped dining room. A pinboard at the front of the restaurant is filled with photos of customers, attesting to its popularity, damn the location, and each table has a card offering different wines and beers. The staff can go easy on palates—chicken larb, glass noodle soup, tofu fried any number of ways—and offer stuff to please actual Thais, from the amazing khao soi soup to kang pah, a curry that eschews coconut milk so the emphasis is on the zing of basil and curry powder. The fusion dishes here don't delve into Kogi territory—just some pastas tossed with curry or chile sauce—but they're delicious, cheap and filling.
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The best way to eat here is the four-course menu: a spring roll and wonton as appetizer, a bowl of soup, your entrée, and finally coconut ice cream that should be brought to room temperature just a bit before serving time but is nevertheless delicious. It's a dinner steal at $12 and is Lanta's best-seller. And as you walk back into that dark parking lot to head home, you'll marvel at how immigrants transform OC's drab into the divine.