The first place I ever ate Thai food, sometime in the mid-'70s, was a tiny mini-mall restaurant named Alex, on Western Avenue, a couple blocks south of Wilshire. I don't really remember what I had--probably shrimp soup, pad Thai and something fried with mint leaves--but I do remember being dared to swallow a spoonful of the powerful vinegar-peppers from a jar on the table ( yeowww !), and that the restaurant also operated as a doughnut shop just in case Thai food didn't catch on.
Even then, people were complaining that Thai food in Los Angeles wasn't anything like Thai food in Thailand. Mee krob noodles seemed already so cliched that it wasn't until last year that I actually got around to trying them. Chicken-coconut soup was destined to become as American as nachos or pizza. But as the Thai population of Los Angeles rose and swelled, so did the number of Thai restaurants, so did the quality of Thai ingredients grown locally, so did the mass of Thai food imports.
The range of Thai food available now in Southern California--"authentic" Thai food--is nearly as vast as the range of Chinese food: northern restaurants with their pork dishes, places with southern incendiary curries, Isaan restaurants with dozens of salads, cosmopolitan Bangkok-style curry houses and nightclubs, and porridge parlors and noodle shops.
At the L.A. Food Court at the new Thailand Plaza in Hollywood, you can find everything from Isaan beef-intestine salads to southern-style rice rich with toasted coconut and the smelly sataw
beans; on weekends at the big Buddhist temple in North Hollywood, there are great noodles, griddled roti bread smeared with sweet milk, and the best papaya salad around. Even the corner Thai take-out joint may turn out to be a secret source for regional foods, once you get used to the probability that the crisp-rice dessert or braised duck feet specialties that Thai people drive across town for may not even be on a menu crowded with angel wings and disco shrimp.
Herewith, a few regional favorites:
Dee Prom. Central Thai cooking is as much a quantifiable cuisine as the cooking from any other part of Thailand, and many of its more popular dishes make up the core of what most people think of as just "Thai food." Yet through Bangkok, all of Thailand flows, and a swank Bangkok-style restaurant--like a Beijing-style restaurant or a Paris-style restaurant--may be recognized as much for its sophisticated cosmopolitanism, a cuisine assembled from the various regions of the country, as it may for any specific dish. The cooking at Dee Prom, an elegant Thai nightclub near tango clubs and Armenian bakeries and Romanian groceries, ranges all over the country: crisp-skinned northern-Thai sausages hot from the grill, pungent with lemon grass, served with fried peanuts and slices of fresh ginger; the peppery Bangkok-style vegetable soup kaeng lieng , spiked with squash, intriguingly bitter; the southern kaeng paa , sometimes translated as "jungle curry," a thin, fearsomely spicy bamboo-shoot curry with pork or chicken; Isaan-style fried salted beef, a sort of Thai beef jerky that is gamy and full of juice; a fantastic, crunchy salad made with fish that has been shredded and fried until it looks like a mound of fish Rice Krispies. After 10 p.m. on weekends, the place fills up with Thai couples, a six-piece band takes the stage and the parking lot overflows with triple-parked cars.
5132 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, (213) 662-1367.
Yai is as authentic as they come, a bare-bones Hollywood restaurant serving informal Bangkok-style "people's food," and on a busy Saturday night it can take longer to grab one of the few tables than it does to order, eat and pay at a less crowded joint. Yai might specialize in central Thai cooking, but you don't really find this kind of stuff in Ventura Boulevard Thai places: fatty, crisp chunks of fried pigskin on a dark-green pile of Chinese broccoli whose vegetable bitterness cuts through the richness like a knife; a murky, intense beef broth spiked with anise, thick with bean sprouts and afloat with sliced beef and wonderful, gelatinous pieces of long-cooked beef tendon; crunchy, bias-cut catfish slices fried stiff as potato chips, smeared with a terrific, sweet curry paste. Here too are the blazing curries, the congealed blood soups and the heroically stinky dried-fish dishes for which Bangkok is known--as well as a truly spectacular salad of tripe.
5757 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, (213) 462-0292.
Thai Nakorn. Isaan cuisine, the cooking of northeastern Thailand, is fresh and clean and blistering hot, dominated by the flavors of lime juice, garlic and toasted rice, grounded by animal pungencies and the bite of fresh herbs. Authentic Isaan cooking is not, to put it mildly, what you'd expect to find a paper airplane toss away from the apple-cheeked hordes at Knott's Berry Farm, but here it is, set into a converted steakhouse. The first thing about Isaan cooking is the chile-hot salads, larbs , in which the primary ingredient is minced fine with herbs, and yums , which are more like traditional salads. Thai Nakorn has a superbly gamy grilled-beef salad; a minced-catfish salad with a richly marine taste; a spicy tongue salad. Nam sod is sort of a garlicky, salty pork salad that's crunchy with toasted rice and tart with lime, shot through with toasted peanut nubs--it's like the world's best bar snack, perfect with a cold Singha beer. There are warm, sour strands of shredded bamboo shoot salad, gritty with dried chile, that you roll into a ball with sticky rice and eat in the traditional Isaan way with your fingers (actually, all the salads are pretty good wadded up with sticky rice). And if you ask your waiter to translate the specials from the menu board, you might wind up with tiny grilled Thai "tuna," fried blackfish sauced with a tasty mint-chile goop, or stir-fried fresh belly pork.
8674 Stanton Ave., Buena Park, (714) 952-4954.
Renu Nakorn, which is located next to a working dairy in a far corner of Norwalk, could be the greatest single hot-food restaurant in the Southland, even though it serves mostly salads. There is a blistering larb of finely ground catfish seasoned with lime, chile and nutty-brown ground toasted rice; there are the thinnest sour strands of shredded bamboo shoot dressed the same way; there is an extraordinary, coarsely chopped Isaan version of steak tartare that is so delicious it can sear the hairs out of your ears. Renu Nakorn, which may serve more kinds of larb than Shakey's does pizza, also makes larb with squid and chicken and wonderful browned duck, among other things, and a grilled beef salad with whole raw garlic cloves and a megadose of fresh chiles, a good tripe salad, and a papaya salad studded with shocking chunks of salted raw crab. (Order plenty of sticky rice.) You might find a whole deep-fried catfish to go with your salads, crunchy and sweet, whose caramelized crust has the smack of Thai iced tea, or dry-fried beef that tastes like the world's best beef jerky, served with a smoky chile dip close to a thick chipotle salsa. If Norwalk is a little out of the way, Renu Nakorn's concession at Hollywood's Thailand Plaza is nearly as good.
13041 E. Rosecrans Ave., Norwalk, (310) 921-2124.
Lumpinee is most famous locally for its advertising leaflets, astonishing folk-art documents that rank right up there in sheer gonzo complexity with squeeze bottles of Dr. Bonner's peppermint soap. Its proprietor considers Lumpinee the only real Thai restaurant in town and will sometimes insinuate that certain other restaurants are owned by Laotians trying to pass. The air is heavy with the strange, sweet smell of scorched lettuce, and the ambient temperature of the dining room can be rather too reminiscent of Bangkok in August. Still, the country-style Isaan food, rechristened with vaguely silly names, is impressive. "Red river" is a complexly spiced red beef curry, a little soupy, fragrant with coconut. A spicy salad made with crunchy bits of fried fish has the smoky tang of good Japanese salmon skin. "Supreme forest" is a beef curry flavored with the usual array of Thai spices and some duskier ones that the owner claims he has people dig up for him deep in the Thai jungles. Uan-ta-leh is a garlicky platter of seafood that is so powerfully seasoned with chiles that the entire room begins to choke on the fumes when it is brought out on a superheated tray. The "waterfall" is a kind of Lumpinee's signature dish, grilled beef tossed with lime juice, toasted rice powder and plenty of chile, a sputtering salad served on a red-hot sizzling platter. Waterfall seems to be on the table of most of the customers in the room, which must be a testament to something, because on the menu it is listed only in a sort of cryptic haiku.
11020 Vanowen St., North Hollywood, (818) 505-0761.
Chiang Mai. Though this pretty cafe serves good bamboo-shoot salad and fried shrimp cakes and maybe the spiciest papaya salad in Hollywood, the waitresses here seem a little embarrassed when you ask them about what northern Thai things they might have on the menu; the city Chiang Mai is the capital of north Thailand, but the restaurant Chiang Mai has hardly any dishes from the area. Chiang Mai does, however, have the best version in L.A. County of the northern Thai noodle dish kao soi , which involves both crunchy toasted rice noodles and slithery boiled rice noodles, piled into a bowl of thick coconut curry that's halfway between a sauce and a soup and is served with a little plate of Thai condiments--red onion, slivered lime, pungent pickled vegetables--that you stir in to taste.
5189 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood, (213) 663-0215.
Alisa. If you live anywhere near Koreatown, Alisa is more or less the only Thai restaurant that delivers to your home. And if you have spent even one Oscar night choking down the restaurant's undistinguished chicken-coconut soup or mint-leaf pork, you might be disinclined to believe Alisa's reputation for great northern-style Thai cooking. Yet here it is, the real mountain food: little straw baskets of sticky rice, tiny bowls of spicy green-chile dip that taste like great New Mexican salsa, an unusual hot larb of ground pork and liver cooked with holy basil, a tomatoey ground-pork nam prik sauce with sliced fresh vegetables to scoop it up. Terrific, garlicky grilled pork is sizzled black and crisp at the edges; bamboo-shoot salad, gritty with toasted rice powder, is spiced with enough chile to strip the enamel right off your incisors. The northern menu is fully translated. And Alisa is almost free--a recent dinner for 11 cost less than 70 bucks.
2812 West 9th St., Los Angeles, (213) 384-7049.
Chalerm Krung. Muslim Thai cooking, mostly practiced in the jungly southern tail of Thailand where it feathers into the Malay Peninsula, involves lots of coconut milk, tamarind, exotic spices and curries everywhere, and it is often closer to Indian--or Middle Eastern--food than to anything you might think of as Thai. At Chalerm Krung, the grilled beef satay , encrusted in spice, reveals its familial similarity to the kebabs of, say, Morocco, and the many curries--the standard green mussamun , the complex, yellow karee , the fiery-hot kuruma --are delicious scooped up with bits of the crisp, Indian-style griddle bread paratha . Biryani is a Thai version of the north Indian dish--yellow, tumeric-stained rice, fragrant with herbs, that is topped with golden shreds of fried onion. Noodle curry is quite like the bright-yellow noodle curries of Burma, soft pasta in a soupy sauce, garnished with bits of fat beef and wedges of hard-boiled egg, smartly flavored with tamarind and creamy with coconut. To finish, there is "Islamic tea," which turns out to be an unsweetened version of our old Indian friend masala tea, thickened with milk and spiced with cardamom, which the initiated--not me--drink out of saucers.
5101 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood, (213) 660-1178.
Satang Thai. One of about a trillion Thai restaurants near North Hollywood's big Buddhist temple, Satang looks like any other mini-mall place, with illuminated pictures of satay above the counter and a bunch of neighborhood dudes pounding cashew chicken and beer. Satang also has a minor subspecialty in the ultra-exotic cuisine of southern Thailand, though you'd never know it to look at the menu. If you ask nicely, a waitress will warn you, will raise her eyebrows, but will describe the three or four southern dishes available on any given day--a peppery vegetable soup thickened with ground shrimp; crumbles of beef and chicken sauteed with the fabled stinky sataw bean; a soupy, fire-red, awesomely hot curry of fish and fresh bamboo shoots that is delicious but smells a little like somebody forgot to take out the trash. Be warned: If you are not Thai and you actually order the fish curry, several people will hover near your table to make sure you don't do yourself damage.
8247 Woodman Ave., Van Nuys, (818) 989-5637.
Ruen Pair is one of the best Thai-Chinese places in town--which means, I guess, the kind of Chinese food Thai people like--whose strong, clean flavors are overlaid with a characteristic Thai funkiness and whose casualness of presentation is more or less Chinese. (For the time being, the branch of Ruen Pair in the Thailand Food Court next door is more reliable than the mini-mall original.) In strictly Thai restaurants, most of the Thai regulars eat in the Thai style, with spoon and fork; at Ruen Pair, everybody uses chopsticks. Fried flower stems are typically Thai-Chinese; so are anise-scented roast fowl, 1,000-year eggs sauteed with chile, fried Chinese sausage, crumbles of pork cooked with salty Chinese olives. If you walk into the place around 2 a.m., you can look across the crowded restaurant and everybody's eating the same thing: omelets, the flat, crisp, well-done kind, like Thai frittatas stuffed with shrimp or pickled turnip; and morning-glory stems fried with garlic--delicious.
5267 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, (213) 466-0153.