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Thai Breaker 

Wednesday, Jan 13 1999
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Thai restaurants are as regular an occurrence in this town as sushi bars and Chinese food. But few are particularly outstanding, so it's worth going to Civic Center -- not exactly San Francisco's restaurant row -- to visit the extraordinary Lalita.

We elbowed our way past the suburban families and tourists in front of the Orpheum Theater, dodged the homeless panhandling from their base in U.N. Plaza, and were finally rewarded by the sight of the restaurant's red neon sign.

Just inside the door looms a large bar. Past it, the main dining room is strangely reminiscent of one of Star Trek's generic utopias: There's a lily pond mural beside a small rock pool filled with koi, a row of Moorish arches down the center, and illuminated triangles set into the walls. We found our friends already seated, somewhat unnerved by the near-constant screech of police sirens and flashing lights whizzing past the large front windows. Lalita is, after all, on the edge of the Tenderloin.

The house cocktails are an entertainment in themselves: Ice cream drinks ($7) come in exotic flavors such as Thai Iced Tea and Coconut Mud Slide. The Mango Colada arrived with a paper umbrella perched on top -- very '70s. Sweet enough for dessert, this cocktail and others of its ilk do, in fact, reappear on the dessert menu. Less milkshakelike, the Wild Orchid -- a Cosmopolitan made with coconut-flavored Malibu rum, pineapple juice, and cranberry juice -- was a pretty pink refresher in a martini glass ($7.70). If you're not up for these, a wine list offers many reasonably priced choices categorized by white, blush, red, and sparkling wines.

Lalita serves assertively flavored authentic Thai dishes. That doesn't mean you'll burn your mouth off. Actually, the food had just the right heat for us, and you can always pick out the red chiles if anything is too hot. The cuisine offers surprising waves of flavors and textures: On first bite food is sweet, salty, or spicy, then it changes to sour, and finally, hot. It's a like a little roller coaster inside your mouth.

Our first dilemma, upon reviewing the menu, was how to limit our choices. Lalita lists more than two dozen appetizers and salads, many available as half orders or in meatless versions. Then come four kinds of soup, seven curries, 13 stir fries, five grilled meats, seven fish dishes, and a separate menu of house specialties, including rack of lamb at $14.95. We ordered from each section and ended up with too much food (our fridge is full of little white cartons at this moment) and, inevitably, a larger-than-expected check.

We began with traditional appetizers. There was a silky smooth beef satay, gently flavored with peanut sauce ($3.95, or $6.50 for a main-dish-sized order). We assembled mieng kum, a palate-cleansing Thai taco, by wrapping spinach leaves around diced prawns, peanuts, onion, lime, toasted coconut, ginger, and a dollop of tamarind sauce ($6.95). Both the pomelo (Asian grapefruit), jicama, and pomegranate salad and the green papaya salad ($4.50/$6.95) were fresh, tart, and crunchy, offering bracing yet different citrus dressings. To appease our curious American taste buds, we ordered deep-fried wontons stuffed with crab and cream cheese ($3.95/$6.50). Not surprisingly, they tasted mostly of cream cheese -- a non-Thai ingredient as far as I know.

The complexity and boldness of the dishes bowled us over. My favorite was the tender duck curry ($9.95), a savory red curry with tomato, bell pepper, and coconut milk, enhanced by the tang and sweetness of pineapple. Basil grapow, minced pork sauteed with chili, garlic, onion, and bell pepper ($8.95), managed to be salty, sour, then hot -- a nice contrast to other dishes, which tended to verge from sweet into sweet and sour. Even when a dish disappointed, as did the cloying honey-marinated chicken breast ($9.95), there was something to like: zucchini exquisitely carved into leaves, and diced tangy mango to mitigate the sweetness.

Pad Thai ($7.95), a traditional sticky noodle dish with chicken, prawns, tofu, egg, and fresh bean sprouts, tasted authentic, but its subtlety was lost among the bold flavors of the other dishes.

Two good seafood choices were the perfectly cooked salmon hormok, topped with a paste of ground chicken, coconut milk, and red chile sauce and steamed in banana leaves ($13.95), and the splash eggplant, thick slices of smooth eggplant stuffed with juicy shrimp and fish cake, also in a red curry sauce ($10.95). A layer of crunchy deep-fried whole basil leaves topped the eggplant.

Gasping for breath after this overconsumption, we managed to share one dessert, fried bananas with peach-colored mango ice cream ($4.95). The ice cream tasted of nothing in particular. We consumed the crispy battered fried bananas immediately, before they could cool into greasy lumps.

Lalita is an easy walk to the Orpheum and Golden Gate theaters, the Civic Auditorium, and even the Opera House. While pre-performance dinners are crowded, we had the place to ourselves after 7:30 p.m. Service was attentive after the first half-hour, when no one appeared despite acres of empty tables. If you're planning to go for a pre-show meal, however, be prepared for a crowd and make a reservation.

Lalita
96 McAllister (at Leavenworth), 552-5744. Open Monday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Happy hour at the bar: 3 to 6 p.m. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: on the street, lot on McAllister between Larkin and Polk. BART, Muni: Civic Center station. Sound level: medium.

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Dianne Jacob

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