It’s practically a shrine, Renu Nakorn, the site of nearly everybody’s first regional-Thai restaurant epiphany, a storefront in an improbably remote Norwalk strip mall that just happened to feature catfish larb instead of mint-leaf chicken, raw prawns with fish sauce instead of angel wings. Even at its beginning, back in the late 1980s, it surrounded its Isaan specialties with an encyclopedia’s worth of the mee krob and ginger fish and pineapple-fried rice that constituted the Thai-restaurant canon of the time. But the Norwalk locals were always outnumbered by nostalgic expats, some of whom drove from as far as Oxnard or San Diego for a taste of dishes that were still basically unknown outside Thailand.
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First stop: Renu Nakorn's crispy rice salad
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Just smashing: Chef Amporn makes the chile dip nam prik oom.
After it started to become better known in the early ’90s, you were likely to run into foodists from London or New York who had heard that Renu Nakorn served perhaps the best Thai food in the country. For years, I dragged visiting food writers out to Norwalk, to the industrial zone scented by the cows from the working dairy next door, so they could taste opening chef Luxkana Seewarom’s nutty, animal, bracingly citric flavors. It was some of the spiciest food available in Los Angeles at the time, even though a meal consisted largely of salads. When the owners sold out to Bill and Saipin Chutima a few years later, Renu Nakorn became even better. The untranslated roster of regional dishes made its way into the regular menu, the cooking became even more complex, and an even more secret menu was worked into the restaurant’s repertoire — this time preparations from Chiang Mai, where Saipin trained under one of the best-known chefs in the region, a culinary master who happened to be her mother-in-law — things like spicy jackfruit curry; thin, herbal northern tom kha kai and coconut-enhanced khao soi noodles served with homemade pickles.
The Chutimas famously left to open Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas, which I once called the best Thai restaurant in North America, and the restaurant passed on to their friends Pharchumporn Shonkeaw and Umpa Sripetwannadee, who had worked at Renu Nakorn and knew the dishes cold. (The menus of Lotus of Siam and Renu Nakorn continue to be almost word-for-word the same, including the floral descriptions of the dishes.) And although many regional-Thai dining rooms had opened in the succeeding years, some of them even approaching Renu Nakorn in quality, it was still a shock when the restaurant closed abruptly in mid-2006, after the owners of the strip mall decided to remodel it, then raze it.
But the crumbling surfaces were eventually rebuilt with the newest strip-mall architecture, and the reborn center sported a GameStop, a bank branch and a Subway instead of thrift stores and ancient dive bars. There’s a drive-through Starbucks now, although the creaking dairy is still there at the end of the parking lot. (Pick up a quart of the house-made chocolate milk, which is by far the best in Los Angeles.) And finally, as of a couple of months ago, the strip mall became home again to Renu Nakorn, and the lovers of deep-fried catfish, sour Isaan sausage and stinky bamboo salad rejoiced.
The new restaurant is modern and spacious, at least twice the size of the first one, has the cleanest bathrooms you’ve ever seen in a Thai restaurant, and is accented by a big flagstone wall that wouldn’t have been out of place in Rat Pack–era Vegas, but a Vegas that includes jackfruit curry and the crispy rice salad nam kao tod.
If you’ve ever visited Renu Nakorn or Lotus of Siam, the menu will look familiar, if more profusely illustrated. There is the usual list of appetizers (go straight for the crispy rice salad) and Isaan barbecue — Renu Nakorn popularized sau rong hai, a grilled-beef dish whose fragrance is legendarily delicious enough, and whose dipping sauce is fiery enough, to make a tiger cry. Under the heading Renu Nakorn Special, you’ll find most of the Isaan cooking, including a transcendent green-papaya salad with dried shrimp, the ground-pork salad nam sod, the sour tamarind-beef salad called nua sao renu and the beef salad nua nam tok. I am especially fond of the plar dook yang num tok, a salad made with chopped grilled catfish, toasted rice powder, lime juice and chile — roll some sticky rice into a ball, scoop up a bit of catfish, and sigh.
And if you look carefully, you’ll find the almost-hidden list of northern specialties, which may be the kitchen’s real strength: sweetly powerful dips made from roasted green chiles as well as from pork cooked down with anchovies and chile, both served with warm fried pork rinds for dipping; the northern grilled sausage called sai oua, as firm and chile-laced as barbecue-stand hot links; and a rich, sweet pork curry called kang hung lay, a Burmese-influenced stew that is practically worthy of worship.
Renu Nakorn, 13019 E. Rosecrans Ave., Norwalk, (562) 921-2124. Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Beer and wine. Takeout. Lot parking. MC, V. Dinner for two, food only, $24-$34. Recommended dishes: nam kao tod, nam prik oom (green chile dip), charbroiled catfish salad.