Lemongrass and old grease

› paulr@sfbg.com

The Bad Planner’s Guide to the Galaxy is a little thin in the Valentine’s Day section. It could be that the Bad Planner isn’t very romantic, or it could be that the Bad Planner just isn’t a very good planner — doesn’t get on the stick weeks or months in advance to make restaurant reservations the way our society’s many compulsive, air-traffic-controller types do. The result is often, on the enchanted evening in question, an interlude of sweaty panic: Where to go? Who will have us at the last minute? Or should we just go out for burritos or order a pizza to be delivered in a cardboard box stained by grease and possibly eaten from same?

Yet bad planners are people too. People with feelings. People who deserve to eat out on occasion. And now there is room for them in the hallowed dining halls of Valentine’s Day. The room is at Rasha, a Thai restaurant that opened in November 2006 in the former Kelly’s Burger’s space near the Roxie Film Center, 16th Street near Valencia, center of the galaxy, if not the known universe, for our local cohort of the hungry hip, as well as for interlopers of the bolder sort from farther afield.

There are so many restaurants in this area now, so many of them unusual and worthy, that opening yet another one could be seen either as an act of superfluousness or unimpeachable business logic. (One of my New Year’s resolutions was to use the word impeach in every one of these pieces for a year, and while I have already crashed, it’s still fun to try.) Because places to eat abound, the need for a newcomer is no better than marginal, but — on the other hand — since the sidewalks are filled with hungry prowlers looking at menu cards, the chances seem pretty good that sooner or later they’re going to look at yours.

So far the ravenous classes don’t seem to have taken much note of Rasha ("Business is slow," our server confided to us one arctic evening, and he could only have confided to us, since the place was otherwise empty), but when they do, they are likely to be pleasantly surprised. Yes, the setting still smells of grease, of the ghosts of countless burgers past; and yes, the bordello-red paint job does lack a certain subtlety. But the space itself is quite nice, with a long run of windows down a narrow lane, Albion; and there is good neon signage that shouts out into the night.

Then there is the food, which is quite good and affordable across the spectrum, from familiar to un-. Crowded near the former’s end of the spectrum, we find such crowd-pleasers as larb ($6.75), minced chicken tossed with cabbage shreds in a potent dressing of lime juice, fish sauce, and chiles; and fresh spring rolls ($3.95), chubs of rice paper stuffed with rice noodles, bean sprouts, lettuce, mint, and tofu.

Other comfy favorites include tom yum ($6.95), a gigantic hemispherical bowl filled with a lime- and lemongrass-scented broth, mushrooms, chunks of chicken, and rice noodles. If you’re hungry and need aromatherapy or steamy relief from cold symptoms, you will find much to like here; among other things, tom yum is less rich than its coconut milk–spiked cousin, tom ka. And only slightly novel is duck curry ($9.95), a coconut-milk red curry sauce laden with chunks of roast duck (skin still attached), cherry tomatoes, and cubes of pineapple for some fruity contrast. A word of caution here: we ordered medium spicy and found the dish verging on too hot, and we like spicy food. Proceed to spicy spicy AYOR.

Kee mao ($5.95) is another one of those possibilities most of us have seen somewhere, but not everywhere, before. The dish’s foundation, as with its marginally better-traveled near relation, pad see ew, is a broad, flat rice noodle — a kind of Thai tagliatelle — tossed with a spirited combination of garlic, chiles, basil, and shrimp. Kao soy ($7.95), on the other hand, I’d never seen before: another huge hemispherical bowl, filled this time with fine, crispy noodles, like a bedding of hay in a barn, and finished with a mild yellow coconut-milk curry laced with potatoes, chicken shreds, and slivers of red onion. As a little boy, I feared and hated my mother’s rare forays into Chinese cooking even though her attempts always included crispy noodles — but then, she did not have access to, and had probably never even heard of, coconut milk and yellow curry and the magic that occurs when you mix the two together.

Like most restaurants these days, Rasha features a bar, and like most bars in restaurants (except the very busiest ones), the bar seems to be uninhabited much, if not most, of the time. This despite the flat-screen television mounted high on the wall behind the bar (flashing rather male-oriented programming — ESPN and Spike) and a selection of affordable little bar snacks such as chicken wings, edamame, and wasabi-roasted peas ($2). We found these last to be slightly sweet and also much hotter than the Trader Joe’s kind; if you eat more than one at a time and do not pace yourself, you are likely to find your nostrils on fire — not the prettiest picture on Valentine’s Day or indeed on any day you happen to find yourself seated across from someone you’re hoping to impress. Plan accordingly. *

RASHA RESTAURANT

Mon.–Sun., noon–11 p.m.

3141 16th St., SF

(415) 437-4788

Full bar

AE/DC/DISC/MC/V

Somewhat noisy

Wheelchair accessible

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