Photos by Anne FishbeinThe signature attraction at the new Red Corner Asia is a phenomenon known as Volcano Chicken, a rotisserie-cooked creation brought to the table trailing liquid streamers of fire, rising from the flames like a phoenix, whole and reborn and new as the day. It is an alarming sight, this bird, plucked from its skewer and impaled on a vertical frame, tightly trussed, engulfed in licking blue flame. When the fire finally dies down, a Volcano Chicken, its legs clamped firmly over its chest, has the presence of a kitchen imp or a small, potbellied idol, solid as a statue, confronting its consumers with what would almost certainly be an intense, animal stare if it happened to be in possession of its head. “Go ahead and eat,” it seems to say. “I will show you fear in a forkful of breast.”
Is the Volcano Chicken good? Yes, actually. It may be a tad dry, maybe a little overmarinated, but it is served with a tiny saucer of musky, intense dried-chile sauce hot enough to wake the dead, and it is not a sad thing to eat. Still, at least one waitress at Red Corner Asia does secretly plump for the more traditional Thai barbecued chicken, which may not provide quite the spectacle but is crisp-skinned and delightfully juicy, not to mention free of the slightly scorched back taste that is omnipresent in the restaurant’s marquee bird.
The grilled chicken satay is classic. And it would probably take a few hours of waterboarding to persuade me to admit it on the record, but I really like the angel wings too, boneless things stuffed with a forcemeat of pork and mushrooms and deep-fried to a devilish crunch. Chicken is distinctly a specialty at Red Corner Asia.
Red Corner Asia, probably the newest restaurant in Thai Town, describes itself as a Thai grill, and although you will find all the usual Thai curries, pan-fried noodles and crocks of chicken-coconut soup, the emphasis is on the gentler products of Thai live-fire cooking: candy-coated grilled pork ribs; crosshatched bits of grilled squid served with a tart green dipping sauce; all the traditional satays. The grilled-meat salads — a delicious num tok of dripping-rare grilled beef tossed with mint leaves and citrus; grilled calamari salad; a spicy salad of grilled pork — tend to be pretty good too.
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Like the Thai-owned, pan-Asian noodle shops in the San Gabriel Valley, Red Corner at least nominally features a mix of Asian cuisines, meaning that the fish sauce and the chile heat will probably be ratcheted down unless you specifically request otherwise, and that the note common to many of the popular dishes — a subtle aroma of dried chile, citrus and toasted rice powder — is as clean and sophisticated as anything you’d find at Sephora. The salad underneath the lacy dome of minced fried catfish or alongside the fried catfish filet is strewn with crunchy slivers of apple, which is untraditional but delicious. This is friendly Thai food, what used to be described as California-style Thai food, but with more of an edge than Pasadena’s Saladang or any of the various Tommy Tang ventures. You will also run across dishes you might not expect to see in Thai restaurants, such as the Singapore roll, which is really closer to the Vietnamese rice-paper spring rolls called goi cuon than it is to the crepe-wrapped Straits Chinese popiah to which the name alludes; or chicken grilled Hawaiian-, Korean- or teriyaki-style, which may be theoretically available on the menu, but which tend to make the waitresses cringe when you actually attempt to order them. Try instead the crunchy roast duck in cream-thick panang curry, the green-papaya salad garnished with salted raw crab, or the fresh trout simmered in tart tamarind broth.
The mini-mall that Red Corner occupies, anchored by Ruen Pair and the former location of Palms Thai, was until recently a grungy destination, ballasted by a doughnut shop and supporting a Thai video shop, a Thai snack shop and a steam-table buffet restaurant among other Thai businesses, and with stack parking three-deep in places. Now the plaza has been gentrified almost beyond recognition — even the video store looks upscale now. Red Corner Asia, opened by the owners of the mall’s snack shop Banh Kanom Thai, is an elegant, high-design café fitted into what used to be the Laundromat: elaborate vases, supergraphics, inset glass vitrines displaying Thai spices, flat-screen televisions permanently tuned to runway segments on the Fashion Television Channel, and the first glassed-in open kitchen I have ever seen in a Thai restaurant — definitely more West Hollywood than East Hollywood.
And after the meal, if you aren’t in the mood for the tasty coconut soup spiked with slippery taro balls for dessert, know that, as George Clinton once said, fried ice cream is a reality. Flaming fried ice cream, with chocolate sauce and sliced mango.
Red Corner Asia, 5267 Hollywood Blvd.; (323) 466-6722, www.redcornerasia.com. Open daily, 11 a.m.–11 p.m. AE, MC, V. No alcohol. Valet parking. Takeout. Dinner for two, food only, $22–$36. Recommended dishes: grilled pork salad, num tok, whole trout in tamarind broth, duck with panang curry.