The latest addition to West 3rd Street's restaurant row is what has been missing there, a Thai restaurant. Rama, which opened September 1st, isn't just another bare bones neighborhood place with quick, cheap lunch specials. It's so handsome you would go there no matter what they serve.
The standing Buddhas that greet you outside and the handsome Buddhas in the dining room and patio are from Thailand, where managing partner Alex Thao went on a buying spree. More Buddhas are on display in the foyer, but the tall case that holds them hides what's really going on. Beyond, a 2,000-square foot lounge is under construction. It's going to be "very exotic," says Thao, like something you'd find in a luxury hotel in Thailand. Scheduled to open in October, the lounge won't have a full bar until Rama gets a liquor license in December. But it will have a late night dining menu with 20 or so dishes served until 1 a.m.
There's experience behind this newcomer. Another Rama is in San Diego, and one will open early next year in Cabo San Lucas. Executive chef Pannuwat Soukjai trained at the Royal Culinary Institute in Thailand, in France and at the CIA. If the food seems more delicate than you're accustomed to, perhaps that's the French touch. It's up to you to put in chiles from the assortment on the table.
The menu holds few surprises. You'll be able to get pad Thai, satay, larb, Thai BBQ chicken and red, green, yellow, masaman and panang curries. Drinks include Thai iced tea and coffee as well as beer and enough wines to guarantee that something will match what you order.
At lunch, you're entitled to an extra dish with your entrée. You can choose an appetizer such as golden shrimp wrapped in crisp noodles or a soup with vegetables and tofu or a salad. Recommended: the very fresh, slightly spicy green papaya salad (som tam).
There's more variety at night, when you can have fresh fish such as sea bass crusted with garlic and pepper or with garlic and chiles; stir-fried mixed seafood; grilled coconut lemongrass chicken, and red curry with duck. Pork belly faddists can decide between braised pork belly with five spice and crisp pork belly with Chinese broccoli (kanna moo grob on the menu). The latter includes tender sliced pork as well as crisp, fatty chunks, a nicety that you don't find in most Thai restaurants.
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For dessert, ask for mango with sticky rice, because Rama excels in this dish. The rice is warm, with sliced fresh mango on top, a drizzle of translucent coconut sauce and crunchy golden mung beans to punctuate the soft textures.
At lunch, everyone gravitates to the patio. Even there, the tables are covered with starchy white cloths. At night, there could be no more romantic place than the main dining room, where the walls are lined with rows of tiny lights and you can't help but relax under the gaze of the serene Buddhas.
Rama Restaurant: 7910 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles. (323) 592-3035.