Cheap Eats - Hot Lanna

Brookhaven's newest Thai spot will make you sweat

Some diners, men mostly, find it necessary to constantly test their tolerance for heat. Pasta gets a shot of Tabasco, buffalo wings are ordered "nuclear" and whole jalapeños are devoured in enchiladas.

With a new Thai restaurant finding its way into almost every neighborhood in Atlanta, Thai cuisine has become a testing ground for this competition of will versus fiery food. Thai dishes, which are often served spicy, can be altered on request to make them even more so. Although this sometimes hinders the intended taste, I've heard those who can withstand the three-alarm fire-in-the-mouth awarded the title of "hot man" when they can put down an entire entree of the spiciest offerings at some local Thai restaurants.

After The King and I closed last year, Brookhaven was lacking a nearby Thai fix until Thai Lanna opened in the former Purple Cactus location, in a row of restaurants along Johnson Ferry Road. Named after a northern kingdom of Bangkok that was autonomous for more than 600 years, Thai Lanna offers many of the favorites Atlantans expect from a Thai restaurant, like curries, penang and tamarind dishes, along with a few regional spices and garnishes for added interest.

For example, the Pad Thai ($5.95) isn't quite the same as you might get at other local Thai restaurants. You still get the standard sauteed rice noodles with egg, bean sprouts, green onions, crushed peanuts and a choice of chicken, veggies or tofu, but when it arrived at our table, it had an orange (not the usual brown) color. It also had a peculiar fried plantain sliced lengthwise and stuck on top.

You get a choice of spice level with all dishes, from one to four stars, and my friend chose one star, not wanting much spice in a dish that is usually somewhat sweet from peanut oil. Unfortunately, the dish was still quite spicy and almost inedible for her (although others at the table enjoyed it). It still contained a nutty flavor, and with a squirt of lime had a pleasing hint of sweetness underlying the burn of red pepper flakes.

The tofu was formed to look like pieces of chicken instead of blocks of jiggling jelly, and after being sauteed with the noodles, red pepper and green onions, it even took on a slight chicken flavor. Lesson learned: Instead of shooting for the stars, the no-spice alternative is probably better suited to Pad Thai.

What was out of place on one entree was greatly appreciated on another. The spices in the green curry ($5.95) I ordered at a three-star level were just right when mixed with the other ingredients. It arrived with a mound of white rice in the center with the same plantain jutting perpendicular to the plate. Similar to masaman curry, the green curry is less sweet and derives most of its flavorful heat from the curry spices rather than red pepper flakes.

The paste is combined with chicken, green and red bell peppers, coconut milk, bamboo shoots and basil leaves. The thick coconut milk put out most of the sparks in this dish, so the extra dose of spice was definitely needed. The result was a pleasant mix of hot and cool flavors more satisfying than a straight blast of peppers. Along the side of the dish was a bit of pickled cabbage and peppers that could aid in cooling off the palate, but wasn't needed in this already tem-pered dish.

The Thai Lanna seafood dish is a bit pricier at $8.95 for lunch ($15.95 at dinner), but seems a reasonable asking price for the collection of shrimp, scallops, squid and mussels. Sauteed in a sauce heavy with garlic and combined with green and red bell peppers, sweet basil and served with rice, the dish was not overly saline, which sometimes occurs with dishes so heavily laden with seafood. The squid was prepared so that it remained tender, not rubbery. The shrimp also fared well in the treatment and was still soft and kept its texture.

Unfortunately, the scallops were overcooked and difficult to chew, as was the meat of the mussels. Prepared at the highest spice level of four, it was not unbearable to eat, but did cause a few sniffles and sweating brows.

The lunch and dinner menus are fairly similar, with an extra $1.50 tacked onto the price later in the evening. A few of the pricier choices at dinner include the Tilapia, a Pacific fish, sauteed in a spicy ginger sauce for $11.95, the soft- shell crab with red curry sauce and grilled strip steak in sweet basil sauce, both at $18.95.??