When the weekly food fest at Wat Thai Temple in North Hollywood was closed down almost two years ago because of neighbors’ complaints about crowds and parking, the culinary blogosphere went wild with texted groans lamenting the loss of its cherished Thai street-food purveyors. Even as Kogi and taco trucks propel curbside food vendors into the limelight, freshly made-to-order Thai street fare hasn’t taken root. The temple’s weekend eat-a-thon was beginning to change that as its fans discovered what all Thais know: The best street food vendors are true artisans.
They may sell from tiny pushcarts or open market stalls, but they’ve accumulated lifetimes of expertise perfecting single items -- a spectacular noodle dish or a to-die-for dessert. Which is why the reappearance of two former temple vendors is such welcome news.
On Saturdays and Sundays at the rear of the dining room of Cha Chaa restaurant on Sherman Way in North Hollywood, you’ll find a group of fascinated customers, from trim teens with humongous metallic handbags and dudes in baggy basketball shorts to grannies demurely dressed in their Sunday finest watching June Cramer make her khao giap bak maw. These savory filled dumplings, with their tissue-thin rice sheet covering are dubbed “mouth of the pot” because they’re cooked on a piece of muslin stretched over the top of a large steaming caldron.
It’s a rapid sleight-of-hand operation from a bowl of chalk-white rice flour batter to final dumpling. Cramer quickly swirls batter over the hot muslin’s surface, spreading it thinly before it congeals a few seconds later. She cuts the resulting crepe into pie-like quarters and, dropping a mound of filling on each, wraps them into tidy bundles with a brisk twist of the wrist. Too much heat makes a rubbery covering and melts the filling. But these dumplings almost dissolve in your mouth.
Cramer says the prototype for her snacks came from inventive chefs in the ancient Thai palace kitchens who were constantly challenged to amuse the royal palates. Her vegetarian filling tastes amazingly like the traditional pork version, yet it’s simply a mix of crushed roasted peanuts, sauteed daikon, onions and an aromatic balance of seasonings.
The same filling goes into sa koo, another dumpling whose exterior is a walnut-size ball of slightly chewy translucent steamed tapioca. Many customers buy an order containing half of each. Served on ruffly lettuce leaves with a bit of cilantro, their garnish of a few fiery phrik khii nuu peppers gives a bright flavor blast to the savory, nutty caramelized onion filling.
In the sweltering Thai equatorial heat nothing refreshes better than a crushed ice drink, so Cramer makes ruam mit, a shimmery, jewel-like rainbow of fruits and other goodies in a creamy liquid known colloquially as “everything gets along together well.”
Ruby- and emerald-colored tapioca-covered water chestnut pieces, an essential component, requires a multi-step process. Cramer moistens tiny chestnut bits with red or green fruity syrup, then tosses them in tapioca flour until she deems their consistency perfect (measuring is unfamiliar to this skilled cook). The edible jewels get poached in simmering water until “they look right” before they’re cooled in water and added to the drink.
Cramer, 63, married to a retired television technician, arrived in L.A. 20 years ago from Chai-Nat province, about two hours from Bangkok. From a family of passionate cooks, she learned at an early age to make her special treats -- which Thais ordinarily buy from vendors -- when her mother and aunties would prepare them for celebrations and holidays.
No stranger to the restaurant business, Cramer owned Silom restaurant (now Bua Siam) in the same mall as Cha Chaa for about five years and then Boon Choo on Vanowen. But now, she says, she’s working on her “retirement plan” as a devoted weekend specialist.
Across the aisle from Cramer, almost hidden by stacked boxes of mangoes, works Lampai Poomsuke, who sold her sticky rice desserts at Thai temple events for 25 years. This youthful-seeming woman recently celebrated her 61st birthday, and throughout the afternoon, she exchanges pleasantries and gossip with a constant flow of regulars as they line up for their fix of her goodies.
“Her sticky rice is even better than at most places in Thailand,” attests customer Apple Richard, who was born in Thailand.
Poomsuke, who moved to L.A. from a Bangkok suburb in 1969 when she was just 20, says she never cooked as a young girl. Kitchen tasks were left to her mother and four older sisters. But the self-described “picky eater” says that when she moved here she learned to cook to please her own palate.
Poomsuke pairs the coconut-infused rice with mangoes, of course, but it’s also a base for other desserts, including a durian-topped version. And she makes black sticky rice too, just as the dessert rice vendors would in Thailand.
To her right, several huge pans of raw rice soak for hours before they’re steamed in a conical woven bamboo basket inserted into a narrow-necked pot. A veil of moisture slowly and thoroughly permeates the separate grains. “You cannot boil sticky rice,” Poomsuke says. “Too much water turns it to mush, too little, it stays hard.”
Between customers Poomsuke sits patiently peeling mangoes by hand. Only the small Manila variety will do. Though expensive, their silky texture and exceptional sweetness are preferred, and they’re available year-round.
Set out on a table, rectangular baking dishes hold sangkaya, the sumptuous Thai coconut milk-egg custard that will be cut into slabs as a topping for the rice. An alternate custard style is embedded with squares of kabocha squash, which adds its own mellow sweetness. The custard, steamed inside a whole kabocha squash, then cut into slices, is one of Poomsuke’s most popular desserts.
Each week brings new variations. Khao niaw dam sangkaya, nutty deep-purple “black” rice topped with the custard, truly has no equal.
Many may miss the Thai temple’s food court, but on weekend days they can still get a taste of it here.