Pass the Crunchy Mummies 

Thai with personality at Krung Thep in El Cerrito.

A whole slew of new restaurants is settling into the newly renovated El Cerrito Plaza Shopping Center on San Pablo, just as the big chain stores are opening. There's Rubio's Mexican Grill, a San Diego-based chain, which specializes in fish tacos and skinny southern California burritos, and Pasta Pomodoro, a Bay Area chain that puts together simple, straightforward combinations that best many red-checkered tablecloth Italian restaurants. All solid chain restaurants, with sparklingly clean interiors and everyday prices. And of course, there's a Starbucks.

But two blocks north of the plaza, you can shake off the neoprene smell of turn-of-the-century capitalism and spend the few dollars you saved at Bed Bath & Beyond to eat Bay Area-style. Tucked in a row of beat-up stores is Krung Thep, a tiny, family-owned Thai restaurant. Look for the "Grand Opening" sign in the window, which has been there for almost four months.

Look on the menu. There's the full gamut of Thai standards, from green curry to chicken pra ram. The prices rival those of its neighbors. For five to seven bucks, you can order a bowl of noodle soup, stir-fried noodles, or meal-in-one rice plates. Seven bucks covers most of the entrées, and the seafood specials never top eleven dollars.

Unlike the neighboring chain restaurants, at Krung Thep you'll find personality, not "flair." Personality's name is Chalerm Khamruang, and he grew up in his family's restaurant in Bangkok. He and his wife both cook, and he waits tables with care and dry wit. All of the dishes the couple puts out are attractively arranged, garnished simply, and served on colorful plates reminiscent of Fiestaware. Their quality ranges from acceptable to memorable.

The starters all fall toward the upper end of the scale. On the plate of shrimp rolls, peeled shrimp were flattened into rods and bundled in rice paper just up to the tails -- crunchy mummies -- then fanned out and served with a syrupy chile-garlic dipping sauce. Spongy fish cakes studded with chiles and scallions had a brighter, stronger flavor than many. A bowl of shrimp tom yum, big enough for four and chock-full of straw mushrooms and shrimp, was limey and spicy enough to slip down one's throat and cause a commotion.

In the amazing beef salad, marinated slices of beef filet, quickly cooked to tender, were mixed with red onions, scallions, mint, cilantro, frilly cucumber slices, and tomatoes. The bright back-and-forth of meat, sharp onions, cool cucumber, and fragrant herbs was ignited by an acidic, ever-slightly sweet fish-sauce dressing.

Look to the "house specials" section of the menu for less common dishes. They showcase the restaurant's emphasis on seafood. One night, the owner unwrapped a packet of grilled banana leaves to reveal a salmon fillet inside, flecks of the charred leaves remaining on the fish, imparting a smoky flavor to its flesh. The killer touch was a bright-green puree of chile, lime, and herbs that sounded a sharp, pure note over the smoky, meaty fish.

Unfortunately, not all of the specials tasted special. The flesh of a deep-fried whole pompano fish had dried out by the time the skin had crisped, and the glossy red pepper and basil sauce glazing the fish tasted sour -- and not the good kind of sour. And a roasted half-chicken had dried out, too. Though its garlicky marinade had penetrated to the bone, the overcooked meat couldn't be brought back to life by the tart (good tart) chile dipping sauce. Tofu pra ram was smothered in a peanut sauce sugary enough to pack into a Reese's cup, which the iceberg lettuce beneath couldn't cut.

But the curries redeemed each meal. Moist chunks of chicken all but disintegrated -- or rather, integrated -- into a yellow curry whose coconut and coriander notes stood out most clearly. The curry paste soaked through to the center of the potatoes that accompanied the meat, making the tubers unctuous and sweet. Shrimp and vegetables floated in a saucy red curry sweetened with pineapple and coconut milk. Its fragrance came from lime leaves, lemongrass, galangal, and enough chile to warm the tongue.

The most unfamiliar, and perhaps authentic, combination of seasonings animated the desserts. Thais and Vietnamese aren't afraid to combine salt and sweet. It's not for everyone -- on my first visit I had to finish off everyone's young coconut jellies, congealed in fluted tart pans and studded with small chunks of the sweet fruit, because their saltiness put my fellow diners off. But like minds helped me devour the best sticky rice with mango I've ever tried: A thin block of moist but not mushy sticky rice was coated in salted coconut milk and a scattering of nutty deep-fried mung beans. The salt level approached uncomfortable until I combined the rice with chunks of ripe mango. Like fruit in a tart vinaigrette, the sweet, salt, and tart notes set one another off instead of merging together.

The brightly colored plates weren't the only bright spots amid the bland white, beige, and brass of the simply furnished room. Their colors were echoed in a lively, expressive oil painting of a Thai temple complex, the buildings towering over the painter, the frilled ornaments on the edges of their roofs looking like tongues of blue and red fire. The Thai John Tesh tinkles away pentatonically from the speakers, enhancing the quiet calm of the room. That is, unless you're sitting just below the speakers, when after a while you may begin to feel like you're taking a cross-country road trip with your AM-loving great-aunt.

One night, the Khamruangs' two-year-old niece meandered in and out of the kitchen, happily thwacking the tables with a stalk of lemongrass. She reminded me just why -- whether flawed or perfect -- quirky, personable independent restaurants beat out the big chains meal after meal.


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