A group of 10 met yesterday at Norwalk's temple of Issan Thai deliciousness, Renu Nakorn (13041 Rosecrans, north side of street, about a half mile east of the 5 Fwy). We ordered a phalanx of dishes to introduce Issan cooking to the many in the crew who were unfamiliar with the cuisine. Funwithfood, Dorothy, Dommy and Robert Lu had made copious preparatory notes (thanks, folks!) to guide us through the menu.
All dishes were ordered with medium spice. We began with Som Thum, papaya salad with chilis, dried shrimp, tomato and lime juice. The simplicity of this dish belies its textural grace, cool and moist papaya offset by the crunchy nuts and tempering spice. One of my favorites on the day.
Alongside the Tom Yum came Larp Moo, pork salad with chilis, onions, and fresh cabbage, served with a lime juice "dressing". This was textbook Larp for me, although we should have figured out a way to make the cabbage more group friendly; tearing off small bits from the provided wedge didn't quite do the trick. Anyway, not a quibble with the dish, just my logistic failure.
When we had arrived, we put in an order for the Pla Dook Yang, charbroiled whole catfish. When it arrived, we laid into it like a pack of hyenas into a slow wildebeest. The flavor of this grilled, flaky moist fish was so right. It was served with a delicious lime/chili sauce that came in all-too-small bowls - must have contained something else expensive to be served so conservatively. Anyway, a triumph, and funwithfood was so buzzing with visions of fish stock that she took the remaining skeleton home.
Two more seafood dishes followed, the first being Larp Koong, similar to the Larp served above but with minced shrimp. The flavor of this presentation was a little more subtle than with the pork, actually allowing us to taste and enjoy the delicate shrimp. Koong Char Num Plar were raw shrimp marinated in fish sauce, and served with more fish sauce. I am a sashimi lover, and the creamy mouthfeel of these raw shrimp was pure bliss for me. I wound up with the plate passed to me at the end and was able to enjoy a couple extra of these nuggets.
The next dish was perhaps the most difficult for us to wrap our collective palates around. Nue Dad Deaw is an Issan specialty of jerked beef. The marinade had a very noticeable Nam Plar (fish sauce) note that didn't appeal to some at the table. I actually liked the flavor, but the texture thing is a bit much to deal with. Do Thais have a secret method of rehydrating this? At table, so-so; hiking through the hills of Chiang Mai, a portable treat.
I had been parroting "Nam Khao Tod! Nam Khao Tod!" ever since the group arrived, and I am happy to know their version was received well by the group. This is crispy rice (grains or noodles - yesterday's was noodles) served with Issan sausage, chili, green onion, peanuts, ginger and lime juice. The first time I had this dish was at RN's "sister" restaurant, Vegas' Lotus of Siam. Since then, it's been one of my favorite dishes in any cuisine, and RN's version is a great intro for anyone looking to try it.
We next conducted an interesting comparative experiment, ordering two hot pots of Tom Kha Khai, one Bangkok-style, the other Issan. The Issan broth was dark brown, thick with meat flavor, and a blend of spices I knew was distinct from its southern incarnation. The Bangkok-style broth was the usual, if delicious, two-note samba of lime and coconut milk. I give the slight edge to the Issan version for its complexity and heartiness.
Our last dish was supposed to be the Issan pork stew, but they were tragically out of the key ingredients for the dish. We settled for a very good version of one of my old standbys, Kang Phed Ped Yang, roast duck in red curry sauce. The rich broth was done as well as I can recall in my experience, though the portion of duck was a bit tough to ration to 10 hungry Hounds. We managed, though, and nobody was exactly starving at this point, anyway.
I briefly considered bringing some wine, but demurred, remembering two things: one, how tough a wine match Thai is, and two, how good a cold Singha tastes. We had a couple of rounds of beer and a few assorted ice teas and coffees, and nobody missed the wine.
Out the door, we rang up $24 pp for a tasty and satisfying spread of food which introduced a few more Hounds to the engaging regionality of Thai cuisine. I look forward to our next gathering.