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(Gerry Furth-Sides) Lum-Ka-Naad, fittingly translates into “delicious,” a popular expression to honor cooks in Northern Thailand. I first visited owner Alex Sonbalee on a rainy winter night years ago, writing him up as much for his irrepressible joy at sharing his northern and southern Thai dishes as the wonderful food — he fed me as much as he could and sent me home with a stack of packed-ti-the-brim foldovers. At the time fellow foodies looked quizzically at the name. Today Lum-Ka-Naad is on everyone’s top ten Thai lists.
It’s no surprise that despite their valley location, husband and wife team, host Alex and chef Ooi Sonbalee will celebrated the restaurant’s 15th anniversary this year, and the fourth anniversary of their new Encino location.
Alex is a man on a mission to introduce authentic regional cuisine, that “not even Bangkok cooks know how to prepare,” he laughs. “We have to train our cooks from other Thai restaurants, too!” Alex, with the intelligence and curiosity of his former journalism profession, and the well-trained, friendly staff take joy in introducing new dishes to diners. (His two star servers are a graphic artist who worked for him when he published a newspaper; the other he recruited in a supermarket line, I just found out this year!)
Immaculate and inviting, softly lit Lum-Ka-Naad is always filled with diners. A lovingly researched menu (160 items!) of affordable, shareable items is organized into categories by type and region – Alex hails from famous Chiang Mai in the upper north or Lanna Thai, and Ooi from Krabi in the south.
To understand what it means to feature these Thai “home” and “street” favorites, think of Korean sea urchin (uni), of Russian caviar, of Italian Alba white truffles – common and cheaply had in their native habitats, but a treasured delicacy here.
And not to worry. Familiar Thai favorites include Pad Thai and Mint Noodles (the hamburger and hot dog of Thai cuisine), plus Pan-Asian dishes, like Kung Pao Chicken. But it Alex waits on you, he won’t let you order them!
Like most Thai cuisine found throughout the peninsula, Northern Thai dishes are influenced by its rugged terrain and by surrounding neighbor countries, Laos and Myanmar (Burma). Alex tells us, with a note of wonder in his voice, “People just go out and pick vegetables for their meals, like wild herbs and eggplants.” Equally accessible are the mild dried chilies, lime and fermented fish that flavor meats, pork and poultry.
“To get those same ingredients here, though” he nods,” friends and family carry them back for us from Thailand; we import them; we search them out in Asian markets, and we even grow herbs and vegetables in our backyard.” In fact, many of the “simple” dishes contain dozens of ingredients, and certain beef dishes require five-hour cooking time.
In Ooi’s Southern dishes, flavors are bold with pungent herbs and fermented ingredients, as spicy as diners like, with extra chilies ready on the plate. Pork is a mainstay, its richness rounding out the spicy flavors with its slightly sweet edge, and so are spiced curries, usually with coconut milk.
Kao Soi draws “oohs and ahs” for the deep-fried crispy egg noodles standing up like a fan, soft egg noodles swirling around in the liquid, a curry-like sauce with coconut milk Diners can personalize its snap and taste with chopped shallots, citrus slices, pickled cabbage and chilies in little side containers.
But most famous in the north are the sausages, astonishingly made in-house! The fat to bursting Northern Thai Pork Sausage ($6.95) or Sai Oua Sausage has spiky flavors lingering in the mouth of ground kaffir lime peel, garlic, dry Thai chile, ginger and turmeric. Best of all, they are always served with “sticky” rice, this, my own favorite of all foods Thai and rare in Los Angeles. Because it is so popular at Lum-Ka-Naad, be sure it’s available (otherwise, it’s like eating corned beef or pastrami on white bread).
Larb Kua Salad, Minced and Dried Pan-fried (Pork, Chicken, Beef or Vegan), and mint leaves, is sprinkled with Northern spices ($7.95). With it are fresh ginger slices, peanuts plus glorious iceberg wedges, cucumber slices and mesclun so fresh and gorgeously green they seem to be growing on the plate.
Chile-hot southern Thai recipes include dried curries, spiced meat and chicken dishes. Kua Gling (South Sea spice dried curry), for example, is pan-fried meat marinated in Southern Style spices paste with fresh galangal, Kaffir lime leaves, turmeric root,
Unique desserts feature the exotic (longan, rambutan, taro, jackfruit, palm seed), and marvelous sticky rice, along with ever-popular fried bananas with coconut ice cream.
Travelers and students, who know Thai food, seek us out” Alex says, pleased. So have prestigious publications, including Gourmet magazine, the Thai government and the Thailand Food Institute with a Select Award of excellence.
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