If you want to understand Night + Market Song, Kris Yenbamroong's new Thai restaurant in Silver Lake, you could do worse than to look at the luu suk, a puddle of warm pig blood, strewn with feathery Southeast Asian herbs, served in a shallow bowl. The herbs are fragrant, pungent and fresh; the bowl is made of tin, of a sort you may associate with Asian street food but that you can also purchase at Ikea. There are crunchy pork rinds, like Thai chicharrones, a scattering of toasted noodles and a tiny dish of sweet, honey-colored "MSG sauce" — the only MSG you will find anywhere in the restaurant, Yenbamroong claims.
To eat the luu suk, you mix the herbs into the soup, scatter the pork rinds over the top and scoop up the mixture with balls of sticky rice. It is actually fairly mild in taste, much less intimidating in flavor than it is in appearance, although your napkin will soon begin to resemble the aftermath of a knife fight. Luu suk can be a gruesome prospect even for the most jaded eaters among us. I have been eating with Ruth Reichl for more than 25 years, and this is the one dish I have ever seen her refuse to touch.
Is it authentic? Undoubtedly, although I have not tried the original. But the question remains: Whom is the dish meant to please?
The clientele at Night + Market Song is overwhelmingly non-Thai, and very few of them are likely to have grown up with a taste for blood soup. The flavors are pleasant but not especially vivid, at least compared with the intensely herbal catfish "tamales" baked in banana leaves, the red-hot jungle curry or the marbles of fermented Isaan sausage. Even in northern Thailand, Yenbamroong admits, this blood soup is rare; late-night sustenance for drunkards and gamblers. The expat hunger for a Hollywood version probably doesn't exist.
So is luu suk on the menu because the chef thinks his customers, appetites whetted at nose-to-tail restaurants like Animal and the original West Hollywood Night + Market, will love it? Is it a dish that exists to be Instagrammed? Does it enhance foodie street cred when you dine in a restaurant that serves warm pig blood, even if you personally wouldn't touch the stuff? Are you also happy to know that you could get an unbelievably stinky old-hen soup with shrimp paste in the style of Chieng Rai if you wanted it, or strong-tasting fried meatballs made with pork liver and blood, or bitter hand-chopped beef larb enhanced with raw liver and a bit of cow bile?
There are a lot of questions here. And you can bet that Yenbamroong, whose degree comes from New York University's film school and not from of a culinary academy, has thought his aesthetic of culinary transgression through. I like it a lot.
Night + Market Song may be the sparest restaurant in a neighborhood not known for luxury: an entry hall lined with chairs, a small counter that may turn into a bar when the alcohol license comes through, and a long, bare room, painted Mets orange, with a Cindy Crawford poster on the wall. The place looks like the rec room in a Downey apartment complex, needing only a half-broken pingpong table to complete its verisimilitude. There is a Michael Jackson shrine in the men's room and a parade banner in the hall. This is Thai restaurant as experimental theater.
You will find a few of the cheerful dishes that make the original Night + Market so fun — the delicious, fatty bits of grilled pig neck that Yenbamroong calls pork "toro," the sweet grilled chicken wings, the Chiang Mai-style khao soi noodles in a curried coconut broth with chicken and the crab fried rice. There is a kind of Bloomin' Onion version of papaya salad, with the shredded green papaya battered and fried instead of pounded, and served with the citrus and chiles in a bowl on the side.
The chef is liberal in his use of dried fish, bitter Thai herbs and all sorts of chiles, but it is possible, if only barely, to have an unchallenging dinner here. The pad Thai is hotter, more tamarind-forward than you may be used to, but it is still recognizably pad Thai. Slabs of pork shoulder marinated in condensed milk before hitting the grill come out sweet and moist, just blackened at the edges. The crisped rice salad, nam khao tod, is quite spicy, but the balance of tart lime juice and smoky chile, herbal sharpness and a hit of porkiness from the house-cured "Spam" is pretty hard to resist, as is the traditional grilled pork salad called "startled pig."
But you are basically going to approach the restaurant on Yenbamroong's terms, whether you know it going in or not. The crunchy, garlicky fried chicken thighs, perhaps the most accessible thing on the menu, are served with a fragrant, spicy northern Thai condiment made with roasted green chiles ... and steamed water bugs, which in this context taste more like an exotic herb than they do like insects. (You wouldn't know there were bugs in the sauce unless somebody told you.)
Instead of the user-friendly pad kee mao, fried rice noodles, at the Sunset Strip restaurant, there is something the chef calls "Bangkok mall pasta," an aggressively spicy dish of spaghetti stir-fried with toasted garlic, smelly chunks of dried fish and baby peppercorns still on the branch — the Thai equivalent of Italian aglio e olio and just as likely to haunt your breath for the better part of a week.
The most subversive dish on the menu may also be the most innocuous, a plate of rice fried with ketchup, frozen peas and carrots, the kind you used to get in your Swanson dinners when you were a kid, a handful of raisins and wiener blossoms — hot dogs cut so that they spread into pink, meaty flowers as they cook. Yenbamroong says that this is what you get with your drinks at strip clubs in Thailand. And it is too bad that the restaurant closes at 11, because khao pad American is exactly what you crave at 3 a.m.
Follow me on Twitter @thejgold
Night + Market Song
Authentic Thai or art project (or both), it's delicious.
3322 W. Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake, (323) 665-5899, nightmarketla.com
Snacks, $7-$12; dips, $9-$10; soups and curries, $9-$15; salads, $9-$12; noodles, $9-$14.
Dinner 5 to 10:30 p.m. Mondays to Thursdays, 5 to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Credit cards accepted. No alcohol. Difficult street parking only. No reservations. Takeout.
Pork "toro," nam prik ong, Burmese vegan curry, crispy rice salad, catfish larb, startled pig.
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