Weenies and Wings Fit for a Prince
View more photos in Anne Fishbein's slideshow, "Weenies and Wings Fit For a Prince: Home-Style Muslim Food at Barn Rau."
In a North Hollywood mini-mall, sharing a parking lot with a Michoacan-style taqueria and a Mexican supermarket famous for its carnitas, Barn Rau is perhaps the most unlikely Muslim restaurant in Los Angeles, an oasis of Islamic serenity flanking a wonderland of swine flesh, a close, dim warren of Arabic scrolls and hanging plants closed off from the tumult outside, like a distant uncle's living room in a city you've never been. One nook of the dining room is home to the restaurant office; a larger area is devoted to embroidered prayer mats. The wide-screen TV on the wall seems to show Al Jazeera 24 hours a day.
There have been Muslim Thai restaurants in Los Angeles over the years, kitchens that specialized in the cooking practiced in the jungly southern tail of Thailand where it feathers into the Malay Peninsula. Muslim Thai cooking, I had always supposed, involved lots of coconut milk, tamarind and exotic spices, and a huge variety of curries. Still, the customers were as often South Asian as Thai, and the menus at those restaurants, none of which has been around since the mid-1990s, skewed closer to Indian or Middle Eastern food than to anything I'd thought of as Thai. While it was possible to get the same chicken-coconut soup, grilled-beef salad and pad Thai you could find at any neighborhood joint, the emphasis was on the more generically Islamic, Thai versions of parathas and biryani, samosas and curried noodle soups that resembled Malaysian laksa.
So the first time I walked into Barn Rau, referred by the halal Web site zabihah.com, I was expecting to find the grungy cooking I had remembered from those earlier restaurants — it had been a long time since I'd tasted an adequate kuruma. What I wasn't expecting was a logjam of limos in the parking lot and a dining room bursting with excessively well-dressed Muslim men and women, platters of shrimp, fried fish cakes and towering rice dishes making their way down long tables with conveyor-belt regularity, and a lone, empty table stuck in the corner by the Al Jazeera broadcast. When the owner finally came by the table to take the order, he sidestepped requests for exotic dishes and pushed the buffalo wings. Pad kee mao? Sure, why not. Basil-shrimp samosas, Thai steak or barbecued chicken? No, not today.
"That's the prince of Malaysia,'' the owner whispered. "When he comes to Los Angeles to buy airplanes, this is where he comes to eat.''
Barn Rau, you understand, is not a palace of cuisine. Instead of the kinds of sophisticated curries and rice salads you find at a Southern Thai restaurant like Jitlada, you find deep-fried cocktail franks wrapped in wonton wrappers, things like prik king and panang you may not have tasted since the 1980s, and a Thai version of Chinese hot-and-sour soup. Jitlada slashes the skin of a sea bass, rubs it with turmeric and chile, and fries it until the skin shatters like glass. Barn Rau's trout is deboned and cooked to the kind of crunch you may associate with crumbling Michigan roadhouses.
But the skewered weenie wontons are kind of good, at least if you think of them as a regional hot-dog style rather than a pinnacle of the Thai table, and that trout comes with a simple but effective sauce of slivered apple, garlic and fish sauce — home cooking, in its way. The turmeric-stained chicken satay does have some of the wild spicing of a Middle Eastern kebab — you could eat about a million of them — and the pad kee mao has the oozy slitheriness of good pan-fried noodles, with enough chile to jolt you into cardiac arrest if that's what you want. And those buffalo wings are compelling enough to make somebody's Top 10 list — seasoned, double-fried and tossed with a sweet, fresh-chile sambal that coats the bird like candy, a wing you could break a tooth on if that's your sort of thing.
The prince of Malaysia, I have it on good authority, likes Barn Rau's buffalo wings a lot.
BARN RAU: 10825 Oxnard St., N. Hlywd. (818 ) 762 7152, barnrau.com. Open daily, noon-10:30 p.m. MC, V. No alcohol. Takeout. Lot parking. Appetizers, $5.99-$8.99. Main courses, $7.99-$10.99.
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