Bua Na fresh rolls Photos by Evans Vestal Ward

Hidden pleasures

You’ll love what you discover at Bua Na

By Dan O'Heron 05/19/2011

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Out of sight from traffic on Colorado Boulevard and Green Street in the city’s Playhouse District, stashed away in the middle of Arcade Lane between three very popular, larger restaurants, Bua Na is a very little star. But once you get there to eat, you’ll find that, like a nova, its brightness increases way beyond its size.
 
Bua Na’s compact dining room seats about 20, but tables during party times can be connected to accommodate 30. Though a bit cramped, the small size creates a warm and snug feeling. Nice table settings, along with a steeple-fingered bow from Fern, our waitress, foretokens that a very welcome place has been set just for you.
 
Tiny cubes of sweet red pepper, often ornamented on the periphery of stark white platters, provide an attractive finishing touch to many a presentation. Natty pastel napkins invite unfolding in a smooth, easy movement. To snap or shake the cloth would denigrate owner Aungkana Sookgur’s simple efforts at making a gracious atmosphere. 
 
Outside, in the brick and palmy Arcade walk-thru, the patio seats 10 to12 regularly. But under umbrellas and a sheltering balcony overhang, that area should expand as demand goes up this spring and summer. More than a dabbler in Thai cuisine, I’ve enjoyed it often since the early 1990s, when most people thought pad Thai was something to take home in a stiff paper box with a wire handle. But until Bua Na, I’d never seen a longer Thai menu in Pasadena, nor one with more interesting variations.
 
With some 68 dinner appetizers, soups, salads (from $4.95 to $13.95), and major entrées (from $6.95 to $14.95), plus 16 complete lunch specials (from $6.95 to $8.95), most recipes reflect the mouth-watering bounty of farm, flank, fin and feather from the countryside central plains of Thailand and the deltas that surround Bangkok. The name Bua Na translates into “lotus of the rice paddies.”
 
Chef Nadia, originally from Thailand, knows her way around the spice trade. She’s able to combine herbs and spices into savory blendings with concurrent waves of hot, sour, sweet, salty, tart and bittersweet — often in just one meal. With the use of lime juice, lime leaves, fish sauce, chilies and sugar, her recipes have impact without using a lot of ingredients.
 
To test full-flavored simplicity, I’d start with hot, sour and salty tom yum soup. Sassy orange in color, the broth is made from Thai chilies, garlic, sour-sweet tamarind pulp, ginger-peppery galanga and some secrets. A first spoonful slaps with tang; the last a pleasant aftertaste. In between, the broth does wonders for a generous supply of tailed shrimp. 
 
It’s OK to pluck the shrimp from the soup and twist off the tail with your teeth. A bowl for $7.95 could become a meal for some. For me, recently, it led to a sharply contrasting dish called Rad Na. In this, tender chips of beef, pan- fried rice noodles and crunchy fresh broccoli florets soak in the shallows of a “just-so” sweetness of black bean gravy ($6.95). Luscious.
 
Dining with a companion, I’d order a crispy whole catfish with etceteras. To get attention from other diners around us, we’d pick until it looked like a museum vertebrae ($15.95).
 
For dessert, sticky mango rice is in season, so don’t miss it. 
 
Setting it apart from other Thai restaurants, Bua Na comes up with some remarkable fusions, including a Thai-American salad of apples, chicken, spinach, strawberries and orange segments, topped with a lacy filigree of crispy rice noodles, dressed in peanut sauce ($8.95).
 
And growing in popularity is a Thai/Mexican burrito. Called “Thai-Juan,” it’s not a prank food like “Ciao Mein” — pasta primavera with fortune cookie — that a loopy joint might serve. My burrito (only $6.95 at lunch) consisted of pork, cabbage and white rice. Tucked 
into a tortilla, it was all slathered in a pa-nang, a coconut-based curry sauce that was so robust and addictive that I had concerns 
about physical dependence and withdrawal. 
 
While Bua Na ushers in pre-performance Pasadena Playhouse diners for relaxed meals, it also serves grab and run, sneak-in foods to moviegoers at nearby Laemmle’s Playhouse 7. A favorite contraband is the jumbo fried shrimp jacketed in crispy wontons (eight pieces for $8.95). 
 
Owner Sookgur, 33, a native of Thailand with a college degree in food science, came to California 10 years ago. Before opening in Pasadena in 2010, she trained at Ocsa Thai in downtown LA, and at Bangkok Café in Santa Monica as a waitress, chef and driver. “I still like to deliver orders,” said Sookgur, “so that I can see what really makes my customers happy.”
 
Science and religion do not take a back seat in Sookgur’s travels. Patrons from nearby Caltech and Fuller Seminary get 10 percent off on deliveries to campuses ($15 dollar minimum) and a 15 percent discount when dining in or picking up. Within a three-mile area, delivery is free to the general public with $15 minimum purchase. . 
 
Check buanathai.com for daily special offers. 
 
Caution: Gorgeously arrayed Web photos of many dishes will arouse expectations and tease you into spending more than $15.

Bua Na Thai Cuisine
Arcade Lane
(626) 795-3793
buanathai.com
 

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