I used to visit Renu Nakorn in Norwalk (13041 E. Rosecrans Ave.; 562-921-2124) weekly back in the late '80s and early '90s. I stopped going there when the restaurant's original chef, Saipin Chutima, left (in 1991, I believe) and turned the restaurant over to other people. Although the new owners kept the same menu, the food was a dismal shadow of the sublime experience it once used to be.
I moved away from L.A. in 1992 and returned in 1999. Much to my disappointment, I read an article in Gourmet magazine mentioning that Saipin Chutima (who apparently returned to Renu Nakorn) had moved to Las Vegas to open Lotus of Siam there. Due to my prior experience with Renu Nakorn's change of ownership, I was reluctant to return there, and I satisfied my jones for Issan-style Thai food at the always dependable Thai Nakorn instead.
Thanks to a few stray accounts on this board that insisted that Chutima had trained the cooking staff that remained at Renu Nakorn, I made the decision to return there after an 11 year absence. After experiencing a particularly frustrating day at the DMV and Municipal Court (the less said the better, but let's just say that the "system" is broken beyond repair), I needed a lift, so I decided to ditch work for the rest of the day and drive all the way to (as Jon Leventhal might say) friggin' Norwalk.
It was worth the drive.
I arrived around 3 PM to find an absolutely empty restaurant. Despite the fact that Renu Nakorn is located in a lackluster neighborhood between a bait shop and a donut shop (with a liquor store and dive bar at the end), I cannot understand why this place is not packed with people from opening to closing. Maybe it's that age-old restaurant adage - location, location, location. Well, location be damned, I'm going to be spending a lot of time here again.
Entering the restaurant, I noticed very few changes from the early '90s. The booths that lined the right-hand wall were gone, replaced with tables. However, the place still seats a maximum of 56 diners. The servers gave me a very warm and friendly greeting, just like in the old days when this was a family-run operation. So far, so good.
As I read the menu, I was happily surprised to see that it had been significantly expanded since the old days. In the back were two pages of Issan specialties that I don't remember being served there back in the George Bush senior days. Many of my old favorites like sua rong hai (charbroiled beef with spicy sauce), nua dad deaw (Issan-style beef jerky), and koong char num plar (raw shrimp marinated with spicy fish sauce) were still listed.
Unfortunately, I was dining solo so I could only sample a few dishes. For nostalgia's sake I chose sua rong hai and for the sake of trying something new I ordered Kang Hoh, a pork curry with glass noodles and fresh vegetables (including the delicious Thai round green eggplant). The waiter asked if I wanted sticky rice (still served in a small woven basket) to which I responded with a resounding "yes!"
The sua rong hai was better than I remembered. In Thai the dish's name may mean "makes a tiger cry" but in this instance it made me cry because it brought back vivid memories and tasted so incredibly good. The beef was a beautiful lean cut of marinated flank steak cooked perfectly medium rare. While the beef was incredible on its own, it became absolutely phenomenal when dipped in the spicy red sauce that accompanied it. I've had this dish at other places (such as Thai Nakorn a few miles south in Buena Park), but no one has reproduced the subtlety and complexity of flavors in Renu Nakorn's sauce. It was an intriguing blend of hot spice, the tang of lime juice, and the abundance of flavor from other spices. I soaked up every remaining drop of this sauce with the sticky rice, and I could drink a gallon of this stuff a day.
Next up was the kang hoh, which greeted my senses with the slightly off-putting "aroma" of fish sauce. It amazes that something that smells so repulsive can taste so good as the senses go into a battle, with the taste buds overwhelming the olafactory senses. This dish, which was new to me, possessed an incredible blend of subtle and strong flavors, expertly and lovingly blended into a mesmerizing melange. The crispness of fresh green beans was complemented by the silkiness of the glass noodles, and the chewy texture of the pork was balanced by the melt-in-your-mouth quality of the Thai eggplant. My senses were overwhelmed by an abundance of flavors - spicy, tangy, sweet, pungent, salty . . . (An amusing sidenote: the menu descibed this as a "testy" dish.)
Another welcome note of nostalgia: apparently the prices have not gone up in 11 years either. Most dishes are priced around $5.95. Perusing the menu, I noticed a few "expensive" items such as charbroiled prawns for $18.95 and a variety of fish dishes for $12.95, but most are priced the same or under what you'd pay at an average Thai restaurant. And there are so many intriguing choices that you'd be hard pressed to find elsewhere.
If you haven't ever been to Renu Nakorn and you love Thai food, go there, as soon as possible. Don't go for the atmosphere or neighborhood, go for the food. Even if you live 60, 100, or 200 miles away, go there. Your senses will thank you. After having what started to be one of the crappiest days of my life, I left with a huge smile on my face and a love for the world around me. There was so much love and pride in that food that it permeated the darkest depths of my soul.
I now plan on renewing my old habit of dining at Renu Nakorn on a weekly basis. But now I have a new goal - to try every single item on its expansive menu.