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Eastern Charm at Mission Prices

Manivanh Thai Spices Things Up

Experienced city diners have a certain set of expectations when it comes to eating cheap ethnic food: 1) dingy & tacky decor; 2) bad lighting; 3) aloof (if not downright rude) service; and 4) excellent food. With the exception of #4, Manivanh Thai defies every expectation. Well-kept secrets like Manivanh Thai are a food critic's dream: we live to tell others about cheap, unpublicized restaurants that serve wonderful food. Closeted between Mexican grocery stores and tiny taquerias, in one of the grungier parts of the deep Mission, Manivanh Thai serves up simple, refreshing food in a genteel, clean and gracious atmosphere.

Walking in to Manivanh Thai, we did a double take: the restaurant is downright charming. The walls are decorated with the usual assortment of ethnic Thai decor---dragons, carved wooden wall hangings, gilt platters, iconography and assorted odds and ends--but instead of having specious-looking "off-white" walls as a backdrop, Manivanh Thai boasts some very nice wood paneling and clean paint. The ceiling is free of cracks and cobwebs, and the carpet is clean, unstained and somewhat attractive. The tables, silverware and dishes all match, as do the napkins, glasses and linens. Lush plants line the baseboards and gentle music tinkles pleasantly in the background. Both dining rooms are well-lit, though not garish, and smell like hot, spicy food. In our book, all this fancy decor usually adds up to a hefty bill, but not at Manivanh Thai, where the most expensive item on the dinner menu is Plaa Pad Prig Khing, a rich filet of rock cod sautéed with green beans and onion in a red curry paste that hardly breaks the bank at $8.50.

But the big test came when we asked the waiter for his recommendations. The waiter cheerfully pointed out several dishes the chef was proud of and waited patiently while we made a decision. Because of our stomach-capacity limitations, we had to pass on the Pad Gra Prao, a "famous" Thai dish with peppers, onions and basil ($5.50) and the Pad Ma Kur, a sauté of eggplant, onion and peppers ($5.95), but we were delighted to eat the other recommendations. The Pad Ta Va Da, a feast of prawns, calamari, chicken, silver noodles, bean sprouts, baby corn and mushrooms in a tangy, spicy chili sauce served over rice ($6.95), filled us with love. The Him Man Pan, sliced beef and roasted cashew nuts with crispy chilies and onion ($5.50) was simultaneously rich, filling and light, served on a bed of rice with a truly decent orange wedge. But the Pad Gra Prao Ta Lay, a delectable concoction of premium seafood, shellfish and vegetables - we're talking real fish, calamari, at least eight prawns, and perfect mussels - set our hearts (and mouths) on fire. We stupidly asked that it be served "a little spicy," which usually means a little spicy. At Manivanh Thai, it means "really f*cking hot," which is absolutely fine with us. We needed a little motivation to drink our daily eight glasses of water.

For dinner, start with the outstanding Larb Ped, made from minced duck onion and bell pepper and touched with lemon dressing ($6.50), the Satay Chicken, which is so moist it slides right off the stick ($6.50), or the Peeg Gai Yad Sai, boneless chicken wings stuffed with pork, noodles and carrots ($6.50). Don't miss the Tom Yum Goong--Manivanh Thai's take on the ubiquitous hot and sour soup with mushrooms, tomato, onion and basil is otherworldly ($6.95 for a bowl). Finish up with a green curry--the Goong Keow Wan, with prawns, eggplant, green beans and peppers is only $8.25--or any one of Manivanh Thai's decadent seafood dishes, most of which are served with the chef's signature chili and basil sauce. But remember: ask for "medium spicy" unless you want to suck down a bucket of water for dessert.