Having been instructed many times on this board to eat at Renu Nakorn, I hauled myself to Outer Nowhere (aka Norwalk) this morning. It was 11am and the place was deserted. Having settled in, I ordered Nam Kao Todd (the sausage dish that's number 14 on the appetizers list) and Kang-cure, (the Northern Red Curry with catfish that's on the Northern Specialities list near the back of the menu).
Oh my gosh. I realize that some people don't want to hear about Renu Nakorn any more, but the place is so startlingly good that I say tough.
The Nam Kao Todd was the one of most wide-awake plates of food I've ever encountered. The sausage, which truth be told is a little bit spam-like, is just one element in a salad of excellent, really fresh and assertive flavors, including (maybe) ginger, basil, peanuts, and things whose names I don't know. It came with some cucumbers, which were good for occasionally cutting the serious spiciness, and a big wedge of raw cabbage, which I have to say I wasn't expecting.
They brought the appetizer and main course at the same time, which made me want to hurry a bit through the Nam Kao Todd. Okay, fine. Soon enough I got to the Kang-cure. When I had ordered it, the waiter had said, "cool, medium, or hot", and of course I said "very hot". This did not seem to surprise her. Then she said "it smells strong, okay?". Having already put on my macho face I couldn't back down now, so I said, "it can't smell strong enough for me". That didn't seem to surprise her either.
When the time came to eat it, I understood what she meant about smelling strong. It gave off that fishy/musky/fermented odor that says, "white guys who grew up in the suburbs not only don't eat this, they don't even regard it as food". I swallowed hard, recited the Chowhound Oath, and dug in. The "strong smell" took about three bites to clear its way through my head before I could start to taste the dish. It wasn't the same sort of clean, sharply defined flavor of the Nam Kao Todd, but more of a deep, dark, layered taste. You had to go looking for some of the tastes, not because they were muted but because they were both unfamiliar and located in a register where Western palates don't normally go looking. Again I couldn't identify half of what was in the dish. Catfish, of course, looking more like sections of an eel than any catfish I know of (baby catfish?). But also strange little plants, one resembling a lichen or woody mushroom, another like a miniature wrinkly seaweed. It was good.
All of this filled me right up, and cheap too. I got out of there for $17.50 including drinks, tip, tax, etc. People were coming and going, but I'm sad to say the place was still deserted when I left. I like to think that the Sunday crowd comes in a little later.
The place itself is nice enough, decorated like a Thai restaurant but in a calm way, dark, a welcome contrast to the blighted street outside without at the same time seeming absurdly out of place. It's right off the I-5 so it's not that hard for most people to reach by car. I read in one of the restaurant reviews framed on their wall that business wasn't so great, at least not when the review was written. I'm hoping they stay in business, since they're truly one of the few indispensable restaurants in a city where you wouldn't expect anything to be indispensable.