April 18, 1992|By Jean Marbella

804 N. Charles St. Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Tuesdays to Fridays; 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. (410) 752-5857. Squeezed in a block of larger restaurants, Thairish is like that Volkswagen that spurts out clown after clown: How can so much come out of something so small?

The cafe/carryout (there are two counter tops with stools for eat-ins) serves up splendidly flavorful Thai specialties, prepared right before your eyes by the genial proprietor. A veteran of other restaurants in town, such as the Museum Cafe, he's great fun to watch in his tidy kitchen, which is bravely in full view of customers: With the precise, no-extra-movements style of the well-trained, he splashes ingredients into a pot on one burner and shakes a sizzling skillet on another.

The food is noteworthy for its characteristically Thai blend of contrasts. The familiar pad Thai ($4.50) -- rice noodles with shrimp, bean spouts, green onions and ground peanuts -- is both sweet and savory, silky and crunchy. Even the Thai iced tea is both smoky and sweet at the same time.

Thairish isn't afraid to be authentically spicy -- the phrik phow, available in chicken ($4.50) or shrimp ($5.50), gets its zing from a roasted chili sauce that lightly binds the meat and seasonal vegetables (cauliflower, green beans and carrots, recently). It's hot, but not scorchingly so, and a forkful of the perfectly steamed white rice takes the edge off.

Thairish also offers two kinds of curries with coconut milk -- a mild red curry called masaman and a mixed curry called panang, and both are available in chicken or shrimp for $4.50 and $5.50. Non-meat eaters can order their pad Thai vegetarian-style, or opt for pad pak ($3.95), a stir-fry of vegetables with bean curd.

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