While the expense-account crowd spent most of this year awaiting overblown East Coast imports, the Thai-food cognoscenti paced anxiously outside a gentrifying Norwalk minimall instead, worrying as the crumbling surfaces were rebuilt in stuccoed pastels and the structure rose to resemble a series of potential GameStops. The ancient dive bar was even replaced by a drive-thru Starbucks. But finally, after many larb-less months of anticipation, the Rosecrans Avenue strip mall is again home to Renu Nakorn, the restaurant that inspired the first wave of regional Thai restaurants almost 20 years ago, and which for years had been the go-to place for spicy jackfruit salad or an order of the crispy rice salad nam kao tod. The new Renu Nakorn is modern and spacious, at least twice the size of the first one, and is accented by a big flagstone wall that wouldn’t look out of place in Sahara-vintage Vegas. The booths and long tables are filled with Breck girls from the local Bible college, as well as Thai folk happy to be reacquainted with the restaurant’s minced-shrimp larb and sour Isaan rice sausage.
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If you ever went to the original Renu Nakorn (or to the fabulous Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas, which is run by the previous 1990s owners), you probably know the tripartite nature of the menu, the roster of the usual Thai specialties supplemented by the barbecue and spicy grilled-meat salads of the Isaan region — the transcendent papaya salad with dried shrimp, the pork salad nam sod, charbroiled-catfish salad, the tamarind beef salad called nua sao renu and the fiery beef salad nua nam tok. It’s all back, along with the almost-hidden list of specialties from the Chiang Mai area, which may be the kitchen’s real strength, and which include pounded roast-chile dips to scoop up with freshly fried pork rinds, sweet pork curries influenced by Burma and coconut-enhanced khao soi noodles that in these early days of the reopening were a little clumpy and overthick. Have an extra helping of papaya salad instead. After dinner, you can wander next door to the last working dairy in Norwalk and pick up a load of free cow manure, or better, a quart of the excellent housemade chocolate milk. 13019 E. Rosecrans Ave., Suite 105, Norwalk. (562) 921-2124.