A few years ago we ate at what was then considered to be the best restaurant in the world. The name was El Bulli (The Bulldog) and it was located in Rosas, Spain, just north of Barcelona.

For me it was more of a tasting test than a savory meal. Many of the dishes were made to taste very different than you would expect from looking at them. But they truly did have amazing flavors.

One that I remember the best was called “Three countries.” This consisted of three ceramic spoons, each filled with a liquid, each of which was a different color. There was no indication of what countries were represented. And there was no need to: as soon as we tasted the liquid, we knew exactly what country was connected to that flavor.

One of these spoons was indisputably Thailand. I love Thai food. And I’ve eaten at more than one dozen Thai restaurants in this area (and also at a number of them in Thailand itself). But what is it about Thai food that makes it so distinctive?

Well, one is the mix of herbs. There is cilantro, lemongrass, basil and mint. Sometimes there is ginger, galangal, tamarind, turmeric, garlic, lime — and, best of all, several types of chilies. And most dishes have nam bplah, a strong tasting fish sauce, which gives a salty flavor to the cuisine. In fact there are a lot of fish-based sauces and pastes, and lots of spice mixes. Thai is a mix of foods from a half dozen adjacent countries, plus Persia. And there is often a touch of sweetness in the sauces.

But we don’t get as much variety in local restaurants as one might hope for. Most of the local restaurants have the same dishes, at least by name. But the taste and preparation does vary greatly.

One of my favorite local Thai restaurants is Thai Dishes. It’s been around a long time. There used to be two of them in Santa Monica, but the one on Second Street and Santa Monica Boulevard closed recently, leaving the one on Wilshire Boulevard.

Our family had a meal at Thai Dishes recently. There was an excellent papaya salad, and as usual we had the excellent “chicken on fire” appetizer, served with garlic sauce. We moved on to sharing a coconut chicken soup, with those special galangal and coconut flavors, pieces of chicken and little mushrooms. And it’s so nice that they serve the soups in a metal pot with a flame under it to keep the soup hot.

Then came one of my favorites, the red squid curry with shrimp and cashew fried rice. The curry consists of squid pieces and many sliced vegetables in a rich sauce filled with flavors of coconut and spices. The fried rice comes in a pineapple, a nice touch. The two dishes together seem perfect, but so different from Indian curries, which I also love.

I think there must be over 50 Thai restaurants in west Los Angeles. If you took away the Thai restaurants and automotive stores just on Lincoln Boulevard you would have a deserted wasteland. But no one that I talked to feels very strongly about any one particular Thai restaurant being a lot better than the others.

The Cholada Thai Beach Cuisine on the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu gets good ratings on the Internet. I eat there often because we have friends that live nearby who like to meet there. It’s very small and usually crowded. The food seems very authentic, and certainly the people serving it are. But I don’t see anything special about the food.

A little further east is Natalee Thai. Here we’ve had some very good food. Big, meaty, tender pork ribs arrived in a well-marinated, mildly sweet barbecue sauce. These three very tasty ribs really could qualify as a main course. Then we tried the naked shrimp, which came to the table in six small square containers, each with one shrimp in a green sauce!

Fortunately we love very spicy foods, so we loved the tender shrimp, and drank its very spicy marinade with a lot of pleasure — along with a lot of Thai beer.

Finally a tantalizing sole arrived consisting of a generous portion of fish filets in vegetables and a brown sauce redolent with garlic, lime and traditional Thai spices.

The food here is not significantly different from other Thai restaurants, but perhaps the preparation is a bit superior.

Finally I tried a little place in Culver City that I’ve heard about, Thai Boom. The ribs were not nearly as good as either Thai Dishes or Natalee Thai. The red curry was OK, but not as intense as others. In general, it was deja vu all over again, as the great Yogi used to say.

All said, Thai food is wonderful, and we are fortunate to have so many small delicious Thai restaurants all over the Westside. Hopefully some day we will begin to see regional Thai specialties promoted.

If you go

Natalee Thai

998 S. Robertson Blvd. # 101

Los Angeles

90035

(310) 855-9380

www.nataleethai.com

Thai Dishes Santa Monica

1910 Wilshire Blvd

Santa Monica, Calif.

90403

(310) 828-5634

http://thaidisheswilshire.com

Thai Boom

10863 Venice Blvd.

Los Angeles

90034

(310) 842-8291

http://thaiboomLA.com

Cholada Thai Beach Cuisine – Malibu

18763 Pacific Coast Highway

Malibu, Calif.

90265

(310) 317-0025

www.choladathaicuisine.com

Merv Hecht, the food and wine critic for the Santa Monica Daily Press, is a wine buyer and consultant to a number of national and international food and wine companies. He can be reached at mervynhecht@yahoo.com

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