Out of the Ashes

Thai Nakorn has suffered more knocks against it than the recently ousted Thai prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. Years ago, a developer coup d'etat booted this revered OC restaurant out of its original Buena Park location to make way for condos. (Ah, the bullish housing market. I remember it well.)

Forced into exile from the derelict structure it had occupied for more than a decade under the shadow of the Knott's Berry Farm replica of Independence Hall, Thai Nakorn soon found a spanking-new home in Garden Grove.

And there it stood until early this year. Then, on the morning of Jan. 8, 2007, that ungodly sound you heard was the collective wail of anguish from Thai-food lovers from here to Ventura when they heard the news: A predawn fire had gutted the new location.

Such is the passion of Thai Nakorn's fans that, when faced with an indeterminate future without their favorite Thai haunt, one person was rumored to have offered to pay for a new restaurant if they rebuilt ASAP. But as delays plagued reconstruction, one question tugged at everyone's bellies: Will owner Wanida Sweewarom and family cook again? And where?

The answer seemed to come with a chorus of angels: on April 23, in a barren strip mall next to an auto-parts store, the Phoenix rose up from the ashes—in Stanton of all places, thus solving a restaurant's existential crisis and a town's identity crisis in one fell swoop. (No word yet on when “Home of Thai Nakorn” will be added to the town's street signs.)

Within days, news spread, Just four days later, there was a waiting list taped to the door. In what was both a pilgrimage and a homecoming, Nakorn-lovers flocked to Stanton like the swallows returning to Capistrano, bearing potted plants tied with ribbons and an unfed appetite for really good Thai cuisine.

Cooked with uncompromising authenticity, Thai Nakorn's food is the kind to create cultists out of the normally sane. Many, including myself, hail it as among the very best Thai in California. On the occasion of our happy return, we swooned over sublime renditions of such familiar dishes as pad thai and tom kha kai, which employed just the right balance of the hot-sour-salty-sweet flavors requisite in these offerings.

Same goes for the mee krob, the Thai equivalent of the Rice Krispies treat—a sticky-sweet, crispy confection that would be dessert if it weren't for the tiny curls of citrus zest, raw bean sprouts, chives, chicken and shrimp entangled in the mesh of deep-fried rice noodles. Thin as thread, the vermicelli were puffed in hot oil until they were as airy as cirrus clouds. To keep them from floating away, each strand was lacquered in a candy-apple-red glaze as tacky as taffy. The result was hell on the teeth but heaven on the tongue.

After this appetizer, we delved into entrées from the specials menu, which featured funkier fare, bold flavors frolicking among uncommon ingredients.

Here, dishes such as clams in chile paste with basil tested the mettle of a true Thai-food enthusiast. Recoil at the emanating aroma that smells uncannily of dirty gym socks, and you fail the test. Die-hards, on the other hand, will recognize the source of the intoxicating pungency as fermented shrimp paste—a common Southeast Asian seasoning used liberally in the gravy for a gritty/savory/salty punch. For the aficionados, it's a far better complement to the sweet, slippery meat of plump bivalves than plain old white wine and cream.

Also listed as a specialty was the deep-fried fish with mango sauce, where a boneless, but not skinless, slab of a meaty filet was splayed open like a book and encased in a golden batter crunchier than anything a British pub can produce. Served with a bowl of shredded young mango, red onions, cilantro and scorching Thai chiles and sluiced up with a tangy fish sauce, the whole dish coalesced into a combo so refreshing it made my mouth water—and so hot my eyes followed suit.

To tame the throbbing, we shoved a few spoonfuls of yum yai into our gullets. This hybrid of a salad and noodle dish contained everything from sliced hard-boiled eggs, meat and stretchy mung bean noodles to tomatoes, lettuce and cucumber.

But if this salad cooled us down, we were mistaken to think that Chinese watergrass with bean sauce would do the same. The simple sauté of the Asian weed had a deep chlorophyll crunch and a taste similar to spinach; but lurking like guerrilla fighters in the bushes were more Thai chiles that attacked without warning. The greens swam in a broth with the elusive smoky flavor of the wok and the earthiness of fermented soybeans. This is a dish I order again and again, despite knowing that any spoonful may be the one that sends me reaching for the ice water.

For dessert, we passed on the fried bananas—which I know from past experience were more coconut than banana—opting instead for a tangy cuts of juicy mangoes with sticky rice and my personal favorite, the durian with sweet rice: a warm bowl of starch and coconut milk topped with the sweet, fleshy lobes from the “King of Fruits.” This tropical delicacy tasted like custard, smelled like methane and was probably olfactorily detectable by Thai Nakorn's Thai-food-deprived former neighbors in Buena Park and Garden Grove, who, like the rest of us, have one very delicious reason to plan a trip to Stanton.

THAI NAKORN, 11951 BEACH BLVD., STANTON, (714) 799-2031. OPEN MON.- THURS., 10:30 A.M.-10 P.M.; FRI.-SUN., 10:30 A.M.-10:30 P.M. DINNER FOR TWO, $20-$40, EXCLUDING DRINKS. BEER.

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