THAI SCORE

While Malee's takes some time to get a fix on, Erawan can be neatly categorized after a ten-second glance: Basic Neighborhood Ethnic Joint.

A longtime west-side fixture, it's furnished right out of the Ethnic Joints R' Us catalogue. Notice the industrial carpeting, posters of Thailand's attractions, fake wood paneling, slow-moving ceiling fans and glass-covered plastic tablecloths.

You won't see any sleek-looking, dressed-to-kill Scottsdale sophisticates, either. Just a low-key mix of Thais and locals enjoying cheap, homey and unpretentious Thai fare.

Aided by my companion, a trained therapist, I figured out a method to deal with my Thai appetizer block. Expect the worst. That way, even mediocre starters could seem good. It worked. Thai egg rolls had a crunchy, greaseless, just-fried-up taste. However, not even Sigmund Freud could have helped me work up enthusiasm for the plastic squeeze bottle of sweet-and-sour sauce that came with them.

The fish cakes, though, didn't require any attitude adjustment. This traditional dish, made with ground fish, chiles, fish paste, scallions and green beans, is deep-fried to a chewy, rubbery texture prized by Thais. It may not be to everyone's taste--don't look for McDonald's to test-market it anytime soon--but I enjoyed its offbeat flavor. The pleasing cucumber, chile and peanut sauce that accompanied it certainly didn't hurt.

By far the best thing we sampled here was the Special Seafood Soup. It's a peppery seafood broth zipped up with chile paste, lemon grass, galangal and kaffir lime leaf. You can troll the crowded waters for lots of shrimp, scallops, squid, octopus, fish and, unfortunately, some dreaded hunks of "krab." There's plenty for three, and practically a meal for two.

In a variety of ways, though, the main dishes fall a bit short of the haute Thai level at Malee's. For example, Erawan also serves duck dishes, including one of barbecued duck, napa cabbage and sprouts beautifully fanned across an iron platter. But the duck itself was almost all fat and no meat.

There's a Thai-style red curry, as well, with lots of tender beef surrounding tasty green beans and bamboo shoots. But the curry sauce, though thickened with coconut milk, was still thin, not nearly as rich or fragrant as we'd encountered elsewhere.

Pad Thai brought a heaping portion of rice noodles smothered with shrimp and chicken. But we didn't get any jolt of Thai seasonings to give this dish its special oomph. Another noodle plate, Paht See Yew, could have come out of a 1950s Chinese-restaurant kitchen. Stir-fried meat and broccoli in a soy sauce provide most of the flavor. It's reasonably good, and very dull. So is the roast pork with vegetables. The pork, with its distinctive red edges, had an institutional quality that the cabbage, broccoli, bamboo shoots, snow peas, water chestnuts and carrots couldn't overcome. Still, for six bucks, you can do a lot worse.

Erawan won't win any culinary medals, but it will give you an honest meal for your money. In this town, that puts you ahead of the game.

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