E-San Rod-Sap

Photo by Tenaya HillsYou willget lost on the way to E-San Rod-Sap in Anaheim's Thai Town. It's a couple of doors down from another Thai restaurant, and the only sign indicating that you've got E-San is green lettering on its window—and these letters are not the familiar ABCs of western script, but Thai, no English translation provided. And you'll probably miss that sign, too, because “E-San Rod-Sap,” it turns out, looks something like this when rendered in Thai: “music symbol, music symbol, guy riding jet ski with scarf trailing, person praying in church, pear tree crashing down upon nearby fence, upside-down music symbol, baby's arm holding an apple, bell clapper, number sign.” Advice for E-San seekers: just follow the hungry Thais.

English-speaking gourmands are welcome at this pristine dive, yes, but the owners here don't need outsiders to survive. E-San specializes in 78 dishes of Isaan cooking, the sour-and-spicy cuisine of northeast Thailand that's exotic even inside the Southeast Asian kingdom. So expats fill up the tables from morning until eve. It's the type of place where a request for pad Thai draws sneers from fellow eaters, where super-sweet palm juice arrives in beer bottles and is as ubiquitous as water.

Most diners order from a buffet near the kitchen, where a stern-looking woman in a milk-colored hairnet lords over entrées that constitute the $5.50 three-items-plus-rice combo. Choices vary from hour to hour and include a spicy Lao-style vegetable soup redolent of pumpkin, fiery green curry (smoky with eggplant chunks) and fried catfish that crackles loudly across the dining room.

A cafeteria-style experience not your idea of a meal? Then pick from the daily specials; hope you read Thai: they're posted untranslated on a dry-erase board near the silent television. Or you can stick to the surprisingly large selection of intestine-based platters like the menudo-esque tom krong nai, a rubbery soup so ferocious with chile and lime juice that UN regulators might cite E-San for violating myriad nuclear-disarmament treaties.

For the best Isaan dining experience, however, try the kao crook kapi. Isaan cooking is famous for combining contrasting flavors and increasing their respective taste exponentially, and the ingredients in the kao crook kapi—rice fried with shrimp paste accompanied by pineapples, scrambled eggs and fried dried shrimp—will battle over your tongue as imperial powers once did for Indochina. The tiny dried shrimp are crunchy and saltier than the Dead Sea; the miniscule emerald chiles studded throughout could melt through asphalt. Your taste buds signaling surrender, finish them off with a handful of red onions, then soothe your maimed palate with the juicy pineapple chunks. Aferwards, you'll be sweating like a marathoner.

A word on E-San's lod chong, a luscious grass and jelly noodle dessert splayed over coconut milk and ice cubes: enjoy.

—Gustavo Arellano E-San Rod-Sap, 1719 W. La Palma Ave., Anaheim, (714) 999-0563.

Wanna dine? E-Mail Gustavo at ga*******@oc******.com. For The best damn dining recommendations in Orange County (more than 500 restaurants!), visit our online dining guide at www.ocweekly.com/food.

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