If you've heard of Las Vegas's Lotus of Siam, then you should already know about Renu Nakorn in Norwalk. Lotus was Renu before it went through Thai restaurant cellular mitosis and migrated to Sin City where it became the blockbuster it is today, hailed by virtually every single member of the food press as the best Thai restaurant in America.
It must be said that the original Renu already enjoyed that distinction long before it relocated to the desert. In the mid to late nineties, Jonathan Gold and Tom Armitage -- two of the original Chowhounds -- had proclaimed Saipin Chutima's food as the best you can get outside Chiang Mai.
But after the Chutimas left to start Lotus of Siam, there were rumblings that Renu's quality waned, like what happened to Batman after Tim Burton handed it over to Joel Schumacher. Added to that, the complex it stood fell into disrepair. Eventually, the whole grimy set of buildings was razed and just like that, Renu was gone.
The scene seemed to fade to black for Renu. But then, earlier this summer, there was a Christopher Nolan-esque rebirth.
Renu miraculously reopened at the same location but in a freshly rebuilt and stuccoed mini-mall that wouldn't look out of place in Celebration, Florida. Best of all, word was that the food was back to being good.
Since it was our first time in (our previous attempt, years ago, was met with the discovery that we had driven 30 minutes to arrive at an empty lot), we stuck with the basics.
First was the tom kha gai, which was so thick with coconut cream a spoon could've gotten stuck in it. Wait too long, and the liquid will cool and solidify back into a coconut. It was rich, but not the least bit tiring on the palate. Our mouths never once signaled that it had had enough. All the requisite flavors of "yum" were there. The twangy, lime-perk of citrus; the gingery-bite of galangal; the faint perfume of kaffir lime leaf and lemongrass; and of course, the sinus-clearing, sweat-gland-triggering presence of chili.
Their fried tofu, though, was really just fried tofu. Also the sweet and sour sauce was a bit flat and lacking when compared to Lotus of Siam's, but the pork larb erased that disappointment with a sharpness that could cut paper. In this dish, ground meat has never met a better ally than lime juice, chili flakes, cilantro and red onion. And it was even more excellent with rice.
Dessert was coconut ice cream and fried bananas...scratch that...it was fried plantains, done in a style that I haven't had since the Wat Thai Temple food vendor fair was shut down. These were exactly like those. Not sweetly cloying, or covered in batter, or wrapped inside an egg roll wrapper. It was done with nothing but a light shimmer of coating and a loving fry till crisp. I ate one and looked up heavenward. Delicious!
The best dish at Renu Nakorn that night was the crispy mussel omelette -- which also happens to be one of our favorites at Lotus of Siam. Glutinous rice flour, egg and mussel form a pan-fried disc as rigid and round as a Frisbee. This rendition trumped LoS's version by miles (about 300 miles to be exact). All at once, it was sticky, gooey, crackly, crunchy, oily, chewy -- textures that still haunt my dreams and put Renu Nakorn back on the map as one of the best Thai restaurants in America...or at least in Southern California.
13019 Rosecrans Ave., Ste 105
Norwalk, CA 90650