VALLEY WEEKEND : RESTAURANT REVIEW : Authentic Dishes Offer Taste of Bangkok : Sanamluang Cafe bursting at the seams with memorable Thai noodle and rice dishes.
The corner of Coldwater Canyon Boulevard and Sherman Way is one of the Valley’s best intersections for ethnic eats, lit up by Vietnamese, Latino and Chinese places. Bangluck Plaza, home to a Thai market, a Filipino-Chinese barbecue and the sensationally unpronounceable Sanamluang Cafe, is a mere half-block to the west, but it’s so authentic it might as well be halfway around the world.
There’s a Sanamluang Cafe in Hollywood, famous for excellent noodle dishes and for being open into the wee hours of the night. The Valley branch is sort of a little brother, but it also reminds me more of a casual Bangkok restaurant than any other place I’ve eaten at in Southern California.
For starters--the indifferent (though smiling) service, performed by a team of Thai waitresses dressed in black mock turtlenecks who ignore you and chat with each other while Thai pop music plays relentlessly in the background. Then the tables--hard and bare, graced only by containers of diced chiles and Thai fish sauce. The lighting is bright and harsh, bordering on the intensity of a hospital waiting room.
And yet you dream of coming back here almost as soon as you’ve left the building. I love this food. The soups, noodles and rice plates would pass muster in any working-class Bangkok neighborhood.
Sanamluang has a late-dining clientele, so come early in the evening if you want to avoid the crowds. Things start heating up about 10 p.m., when the late supper crowd hits, and don’t cool off until well after midnight. (The cafe serves food until 4 a.m.)
The menu is a bit confusing, starting with the fact that it is written in Thai, Chinese and Vietnamese, as well as English. There is a long list of dishes advertised as being served only after 10 p.m., but this turns out not to be true, so you can add kai jeaw (a wonderful omelet stuffed with ground pork), pad ka pao (fried chiles, mint leaves and the ground meat of your choice) and two dozen more Thai pub dishes to your options. (Only juk , the South Chinese rice porridge traditionally consumed for breakfast or after the bars close, is truly unavailable before 10 p.m.)
Instead of starting a meal with the ubiquitous satays --those miniature shish kebabs that belong more to Indonesia than to Thailand--order an appetizer that’s a little out of the ordinary, like koo chai . This consists of puffy rice croquettes stuffed with Chinese vegetables and topped with a hot, sticky black soy sauce.
The tom kha kai is delicious here, but you can get the same spicy coconut soup at nearly any Thai restaurant. I’d go for the Sanamluang noodles instead--#32 on the menu, for those who wish to simplify matters. It’s a world-class meal in a bowl: strong chicken broth, sliced liver, fish balls, fish cakes, shrimp, bean sprouts and lots of fried pork with a fried won ton or two on the surface. Wow.
Naturally, there are noodles, probably enough to construct a cable clear to the South China Sea. The familiar phad Thai is less sweet than many Thai restaurants make it (and overdressed with crushed peanuts). Phad see ew are flat rice noodles tossed in a frying pan with thin-sliced Chinese broccoli, black soy and scrambled eggs, topped with a choice of pork, beef, chicken or (my suggestion) plump, fresh shrimp. For the really hungry, consider special rad nah , which is more flat rice noodles, here mixed up with five meats, several vegetables and a fried egg with runny yolk.
The rice dishes are on a higher rung than their counterparts at purely Chinese restaurants because they employ the superior fragrant Thai rice. Cha-po is a combination of Chinese-style barbecued pork, roasted duck and deep-fried pork belly with a mound of this fluffy rice. The sensational pork leg is a delicate, sweet and ultra-tender heap of juicy, reddish meat, stewed with mustard greens.
For dessert, you can get a giant plastic tumbler of Thai iced coffee, the top third of which is white with pure condensed milk. Thais linger over their coffees well past midnight in this cafe. My theory is that they’re just waiting to get hungry again.
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* WHERE: 12980 Sherman Way, North Hollywood.
* SUGGESTED DISHES: kai jeaw , $4.50; Sanamluang noodles, $3.95; pad ka pao with shrimp, $5.75; pork leg rice, $4.50.
* HOURS: Open 9 a.m.-4 a.m. daily.
* PRICE: Dinner for two, $13-$23. Beer and wine only. Parking lot. Cash only.
* CALL: (818) 764-1180.
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