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THE BIG HEAT THAI FOOD RUNS THE GAMUT FROM COOL TO SPICY

IT WILL come as no surprise to learn that The King and I is a Thai restaurant -- and a reasonably authentic one at that. In other words, do not expect an enormous amount of Hollywood-style glitz here. And forget everything you ever knew about Yul Brynner.

This is a pleasant little storefront, almost hidden in the busy intersection of Kensington, with parking in the lot next door. The walls are gleaming white; interesting artifacts are placed here and there. Red banquettes line the walls surrounding a takeout counter.

There's even an occasional exciting view. When the door to the kitchen opens, you can watch the fire leap around the woks as the chef stir-fries. It's quite dramatic. Of course, some Thai food can be hot in other ways as well, and it's just as well to remember that.

When your server asks if you want your food mild, medium or hot, be aware that unlike in many restaurants in the area, he's not kidding. Hot means hot. We found that "medium" did nicely for us. Tip: Make use of the steamed rice if the chile heat gets to you. The cucumber salad also comes in handy.

Tom Yum soup ($2.25) was a fine way to begin the meal. Served up in a pretty little blue and white lidded casserole, the chicken-based soup was loaded with mushrooms and vegetables and had a sweet/sour taste. Fresh cilantro leaves added herbal overtones.

One of the attributes of good Thai food is balance, subtle flavors playing off against each other. Tom Yum was a perfect example.
We selected two of the most famous Thai appetizers, too. Crisp Spring Rolls ($3.95), stuffed with chicken and vegetables, had a clear fresh taste. We dipped them in a sweet and spicy sauce. And we also enjoyed Pork and Chicken Satay ($4.50). The meat was threaded on wooden skewers and served with a Peanut Dipping Sauce -- a smooth sauce with a subtle taste and very creamy texture.

Cucumber salad, garnished with red pepper rings, was cooling.

Our main courses included one of the house specialties, Koong Ob Mor Din ($8.95), which was brought to the table in a deep terra-cotta casserole. Nice large shrimp, vegetables and clear noodles were steamed in full-flavored broth. A very generous serving.

Pud (Pad) Thai ($7.95) is another famous Thai dish, so we tried that, too. Long rice noodles were lightly sauteed with eggs and vegetables. I ordered it with scallops and the lightly fried mollusks added interest to the combination and there was a garnish of bean sprouts. This dish was the most lightly flavored of the bunch, so it provided good contrast to the meal. (If you wish, you can ask for additional condiments.)

There's plenty more on the menu. Appetizers include Stuffed Chicken Wings (with water chestnuts and noodles, $5.25) and Mee Krob (crisp rice noodles with chopped chicken and vegetables, $4.25). For his main course, the guy at the next table ordered Pla Prew Wan, a fried whole fish topped with onions, tomatoes, bell peppers and pineapple.

It was a beautiful thing to behold -- and I was instantly overcome with jealousy.

There's a big selection of curries here, which, in Thailand, are made with coconut milk. That doesn't mean they are not spicy. Note red curry, green curry or what the menu calls Mus Sa Mun curry. (Tip: Green curries are usually the hottest.) You can also order salads, served with a spicy dressing.

Best thing for dessert? To my mind, it's Iced Coffee. The beverage is served in a tall glass with a thick milk cap, and it's very sweet.

I loved it.

SECOND HELPINGS
Park Lane * (March 20)
Park Lane, Delaware Avenue at Gates Circle (881-2603). The reopening of this Buffalo landmark restaurant has long been anticipated, and it's now a beautiful place. It features an imaginative use of contemporary ingredients.
Danny Ocean's (March 13)
Danny Ocean's, 5433 Transit Road, Clarence (568-1000). Fine steaks and good Asian fusion food.
Savoy Supper Club * (March 6)
Savoy Supper Club, 69 Delaware Ave. (855-0099). Southern cuisine is featured in this restaurant/nightclub, and lots of it, prepared in a down-home way -- Country Fried Ribs, Smothered Pork Chops, Hoppin' John, etc.
Al-E-Oops (Feb. 27)
Al-E-Oops, 5389 Genesee St., Lancaster (681-0200). Come here for barbecue. Pork, beef, turkey, chicken -- everything cooked over hickory wood.
Leo's 1/2 (Feb. 20)
Leo's, 1105 Benner Road, Fort Erie, Ont. (905-871-4962). Long-established restaurant that offers huge, old-fashioned meals with lots of side dishes served family-style.
Papa Jake's 1/2 (Feb. 13)
Papa Jake's, 1672 Elmwood Ave. (874-3878). A typical Western New York neighborhood tavern. Informal and friendly. Most of the menu consists of huge fresh sandwiches.
* Indicates restaurant is so new that this is a provisional rating.

THE KING AND I
** 1/2 *
3933 Harlem Road, Amherst (839-2950). It's a Thai restaurant, of course, with a big selection of dishes. It's also one of the few restaurants around that really means it when it says, "Very hot and spicy." No alcohol. Credit cards: MasterCard and Visa.

BEST DISH: Pud Thai.

NEEDS WORK: All dishes of good quality.

PRICE RANGE: Dishes from around $6.95. Lunch Combination Platters with spring roll and soup from $5.25.

SERVICE: Very good.

HOURS: Mon. through Thurs. 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Fri. and Sat. 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday 3 to 9:30 p.m.

HEALTH-CONSCIOUS CHOICES: Many healthy choices, including stir fries.

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.

PARKING: In the lot next door.

KID APPEAL: Yes.
KEY: FAIR, GOOD, VERY GOOD, EXCELLENT, EXTRAORDINARY. Stars are awarded for the quality of the food only.

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