Amound of fragrant jasmine rice arrives at the table piled high with a montage of slivered green mango, sliced lemon grass, finely cut green beans, bean sprouts, cucumbers and shredded carrots and cabbage. It's sprinkled with julienned kaffir lime leaves, ground dried shrimp and chile powder and served with a small bowl of sweet-salty budu sauce and a wedge of lime. The hostess comes to the table and with a large spoon tosses the whole fabulous salad together, telling you that her naam budu is made in-house with anchovies, herbs, lemon grass and garlic, and that you have to use all of the sauce that's given to you, along with a squeeze or two of lime, to get the right balance of flavor.
Thai restaurant: An article in last week's Food section stated that Lum-Ka-Naad is in Reseda. It is in Northridge. —

This is khao yam, a southern Thai specialty. And it's one of the reasons Thai cuisine in L.A. is great again, after more than a decade in the doldrums. Regional Thai cooking is returning to the fore, and the excitement is right there on the plate. In Hollywood, new owners at a Thai Town institution have amped up a southern Thai menu complete with some of the wildest curries and most intriguing salads (including the khao yam) you'll ever encounter. A multi-regional Thai restaurant with an extensive menu of northern, southern and central Thai dishes has opened in the heart of the San Fernando Valley. A couple of longtime Orange County Thai favorites known for their Isaan cuisine have remodeled or rebuilt, with plans to expand. And the energy just seems to keep building.

Beyond the familiar citified cuisine of Bangkok and the tropical central plains, rural regional cooking encompasses more assertive tastes and varied textures. Raw shellfish punctuated with sassy tartness. Aromatic herbs with transporting, pungent flavor. Dry-curry meats with searing heat.

But you have to know what to look for. Flip past the mee krob and tom yum kai and look for the special southern Thai menu or northern Thai menu in the back. Or it might be on a well-worn page stashed behind the cash register. Hunt it down. The dishes are apt to be the favorite foods particular to the chef's home village -- and the best Thai you've probably had in a long time.

Ask for help: If you show some interest, the staff will be happy to make recommendations.

In the past, although Thai restaurants found it more lucrative to satisfy the American palate with the familiar roster of central-style food -- pad Thai, coconut chicken soup -- a few would offer at least a couple of dishes from their own region. These places were few and far between, but in the '80s and '90s diners who had traveled in Thailand were thrilled to drive to Panorama City to Satang Thai to eat pungent kaeng leuang, a catfish curry filled with fermented bamboo shoots. In Hollywood, Chao Neua and V.P. Cafe offered northern specialties. As many Thai food buffs know, restaurants serving northeastern-style Isaan food were somewhat more abundant. But in the '90s, they started disappearing. After a while only a few northeastern-style restaurants remained to represent the powerful flavors of rural Thailand.

Happily, several new restaurants have taken their place.

One such spot is Lum-Ka-Naad in Reseda. Alex Sonbalee and his wife, Ooi, opened their multiregional Thai restaurant last spring. They're cooking the food of their own regions -- he's from Chiang Mai in the north and she's from Krabi in the south. Knowing that the L.A. area has the largest Thai population outside Thailand, they believed their cooking would woo Thais who miss dishes from home. Because few Thai restaurants serve regional cuisine in the Valley, they saw a niche.

"We also believed we could succeed because here in L.A. there are [non-Thai] people who understand our food," Alex Sonbalee says. Apparently, the Sonbalees are on to a trend. The upswing has coincided with increased investment from Thailand after the collapse of the Thai currency in 1997, Alex says. More Thai money in town means more demand for the highest level of Thai cooking, and restaurateurs are responding.

Each area of Thailand has a distinct flavor palette. You'll find the northern Thai mainstay of pork in rich spiced curries (some made without the coconut milk prevalent in central Thai curries) and in sausages spiked with ground lime peel and garlic, always served with "sticky" rice. The rich pork rounds the spicy flavors with its slightly sweet edge. In the northeast, colloquially known as Isaan, the cuisine is dictated by the region's harsh, dusty landscape with no access to the sea. Dried chiles, herbs plucked from the rice fields, lime and fermented fish lend their flavor to wild boar or raw freshwater shrimp. In the same region, many Thai-Lao dishes are similar but not as aggressively seasoned. Southern flavors are the boldest and spiciest, the herbs more pungent and the taste of fermented ingredients more apparent.

The southTHAIS say southern food is the ultimate of phet (spiciness), as intense as the fast-paced, clipped dialect of the area. Sandwiched between two oceans, the southern region is a skinny isthmus with access to an amazing array of seafood and freshwater fish. Both the land and the food bridge Thailand and Malaysia.

Curries are packed with Malay-influenced spices, fermented fish seasoning and ocher-yellow fresh turmeric. A signature tartness comes from plenty of lime, palm vinegar, tamarind and other sour fruits.

"Thai food at a lot of restaurants is too sweet," says Srintip "Jazz" Singsanong, who with her brother and chef Suthiporn "Tui" Sungkamee took over Thai Town stalwart Jitlada last year. The homey, randomly decorated Hollywood restaurant tucked into a Sunset Boulevard strip mall had languished for several years, but under new ownership it has become a surprising source for fantastic southern Thai food. Though the dishes can certainly be searingly hot, most are manageable (if you ask for medium spicy), and incredibly nuanced.

When chef Sungkamee took over the kitchen he added his own southern-style dishes prepared with family recipes, but these were written in Thai script. Enter a visiting Chicago food blogger who translated and annotated the Thai menu, revealing these southern specialties -- like the khao yam (rice salad) -- to non-Thai speakers. Most Angelenos had never braved the heat of kaeng kop som thawn, the curry of frog legs and slices of plum-like pickled santol fruit only slightly mitigated with a little coconut milk. Catfish curry with wild tea leaves the color of cavalo nero seems refined next to the rustic kaeng paa plaa duk luuk taw, catfish curry sprinkled with sator tree "beans," a delicacy (and perhaps an acquired taste) synonymous with southern food. There's little pork on the southern-dish menu, in deference to the south's large Muslim population.

Jitlada offers not one but two crab salads: yam priaw dawng, or pickled crab salad, has the sweet-sour flavors of lemon grass, loads of garlic and a showering of mint, and the puu pen phla, a spicyblue crab salad -- chunks of salt-cured uncooked crab piled with julienned green papaya, lemon grass, mint, slivers of red onion and chiles. You suck the raw meat from its shell doused with all the juices from the fruit, vegetables and herbs. There might be small shell pieces scattered throughout, but who cares -- it's addictively delicious.

The northAMONG the most comprehensive northern menus are those at Top Thai in Reseda and Spicy BBQ Restaurant by Nong & Family, a tidy, minuscule place in Hollywood where the tables are covered with Thai textiles and what looks like elaborate holiday tinsel crosses the ceiling. The restaurants are run by two Thai sisters, Noi and Nong Sriyana, who hail from the northern Thai town of Fang.

The north, isolated geographically until the 1920s (one could get there only by elephant or complicated boat trips), has remained as distinct from central Thailand as Kauai is from Manhattan. And so has its cooking. The area has a grand mixture of influences from its many hill tribes, from the ancient Chinese settlers and from the neighboring Lao and Burmese. You see the influence in Spicy BBQ's kaeng hangleh, a Burmese-influenced curry with pork chunks, sliced ginger, whole cloves of garlic and peanuts and the famous khao sawy curried noodles.