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Coming un-Thai'd 

Jitlada offers strip mall Siamese

Remember Bai Tong, the strip mall Bangkok bungalow in which authentic Thai cooking, decor and costume were in almost perfect harmony? Forget it. The intown restaurant has changed hands and changed names. It's now called Jitlada, and it is something else altogether.

Oh, the sconces, shrines and door posts of handsomely carved, dark wood remain. So do the portraits of Thai royalty and the leaf-logo china (Bai Tong means "banana leaf" in Thai). Nor is the menu much different. (Atlanta's Thai restaurateurs notoriously copy each other.)

A handful of novelties have been added to the mix. More flags line the walls. Tables with cheap plastic chairs and artificial orchids have been set up on the sidewalk out front (Jitlada means "garden"). Though far from romantic, the patio is a welcome alternative to air conditioning when fresh evening breezes caress the parking lots of nearby LaVista Road and the Tara Theater complex.

A small, intimate repast can be put together. After three meals at the restaurant, fried squid with sweet and hot sauce seems the safest appetizer choice ($6.50). Though the squid don't have a lot of flavor, they're cooked to order, and the transparent tempura batter in which they're fried is appealingly light.

Catfish panang curry, a lunch special, consists of four pieces of freshly fried, crisp, boneless catfish with broccoli and sprigs of basil in a moderately spicy, orange-hued sauce ($7.95). If the curry isn't classic panang, well, it tastes good enough. And I did manage to warn the waitress off the inauthentic addition of bell peppers with which it otherwise would have been prepared.

Spicy red curry with chicken -- spicy only in terms of Thai baby food -- isn't hard to eat either, again given the omission of the bell peppers listed on the dinner menu ($8.95). Coconut milk, bamboo shoots and basil leaves are other ingredients. Shrimp, pork and beef versions are options. From what I can tell by reading the menu, Thai peppers are not.

Steamed aromatic rice is properly prepared. Other than these choices, you're on your own.

Tamarind boneless duck reminded me of fried pork rind or duck cracklings in heavy brown gravy ($15.95). Served with thin-sliced Asian eggplant and limp kiwi, the duck was at once fatty and dry. The less said about warm kiwi the better.

Pad Thai -- rice noodles tossed with wet, all-purpose red sauce, a few tasteless shrimp, some dry wisps of what may have been scrambled egg or tofu, bean sprouts and lime -- was a bland, one-flavor bore, a tangled waste of time and $7.95.

Fresh basil rolls, equally bland, drew more flavor from rice noodles than shrimp or pork ($3 for two). The only character the appetizer possessed came from the spicy plum dipping sauce.

Nam soed with chicken -- stir-fried, minced meat with ginger, red onion, ground chili and lime juice -- also possessed one flavor note: hot ($5.95). A wedge of cabbage-leaf wrappers cut the heat marginally. Still, I'd take it over the dishwater-and-salt soup included with lunch. Containing flavorless chicken, mushrooms and cilantro, it's just what you might expect of shopping center cuisine, as was my first lunch plate after the change of hands in May: ginger chicken by name, bell pepper chicken by design ($5.50).

Maybe Jitlada can make it on students hungry for bargains and movie-goers in a rush. At the moment, however, and as a garden of Thai delights, it strikes me as rocky, barren ground.

Jitlada Thai, 2329-C Cheshire Bridge Road, at Lenox Road. 404-728-9040. Entrées range in price from $7-$14. Open Mon.-Fri. 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., Mon.-Thurs. 5-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 5-11 p.m. Cash and credit cards accepted.

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