2000s Archive

Beyond Bangkok

Originally Published July 2008

How many Thai restaurants are there around L.A. today? According to Chanchanit Martorell, executive director of the city’s Thai Community Development Center, about 700—more than 70 of them in the east Hollywood neighborhood known as Thai Town. For many years, L.A. Thai restaurants served a more or less standard menu of the kinds of things you might have found in Bangkok, but in recent years, a number of places have added special menus devoted to diverse regional cuisines. Angelenos who love Thai food, and there are a lot of them, tend to be passionate about their favorites, and, like the food-mad everywhere, they rarely agree. Here are a few of my own preferred places, regionally oriented and otherwise.

LUM-KA-NAAD (8920 Reseda Blvd., Northridge; 818-882-3028), a cheery storefront in the northwestern San Fernando Valley, is a two-for-one stop: The owners are Alex Sonbalee, from Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, who cooks things like Thai-Burmese pork curry singing with ginger and the famous soupy curried-noodle dish called khao soy, and his wife, Ooi, who comes from southern Thailand and is responsible for such delights as whole grilled squid in spicy seafood sauce and, on special order, an elaborate version of khao yam (rice salad). It’s all good.

SPICY BBQ RESTAURANT (5101 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles; 323-663-4211) is a diamond in the rough. A cash-only BYOB place in a tired-looking mini-mall near Thai Town, it offers a laminated menu (illustrated with garish color photos) listing egg rolls, chop suey, and even teriyaki chicken, as well as all the usual Thai fare. Savvy diners skip right past all that, though, and order from the selection of northern Thai specialties, uncommon and skillfully prepared. Pork is king here: Among the best dishes are a pungent but addictive spicy jackfruit salad with ground pork and a hint of curry; “ground pork chili paste,” somewhere between a meat-based dip and a finely textured pork-based version of beanless Texas chili (it’s best eaten with little balls of sticky rice); and lemongrass-scented ground-pork salad with thin slices of crisp pork liver. There’s also a complex, and quite wonderful, vegetable curry combining glass noodles with cauliflower, string beans, eggplant, zucchini, onions, bamboo shoots, Chinese broccoli, and whole chiles.

TALÉSAI (9043 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood; 310-275-9724), which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, is unique among Thai restaurants. Basically, it does for Thai food what Chinois on Main has done for Chinese: expanded the definition, Westernizing while remaining true to the original spirit. “I call what we do not fusion but ‘new Thai cooking,’ ” says the proprietor, Prakas Yenbamroong. “We’ve always been influenced by other cuisines; the Portuguese brought us chiles, the Indians brought us curry, the Chinese brought us noodles. We shouldn’t stop developing.” Thus the menu reaches far afield. (The chef for now is Yenbamroong’s sister, Ben, but his son, Kris, has recently come on board full of new ideas; Yenbamroong’s mother, Vilai, the former chef, remains a consultant.) There is a saté, for instance, made with filet mignon. A crisp calamari salad involves mesclun, and the sauce for spicy sliced rib-eye steak includes a suspicion of Parmigiano-Reggiano. Quality is high throughout. “Super wild shrimp” are hot and pure in their dressing of chiles, garlic, and lime juice; slabs of crisp tofu dressed with tamarind and peanut sauce are addictive. Brightened with contemporary art by Thai artist Kamol Tassananchalee (whose work also graced the original Spago) and boasting a first-class wine list (from Leth Grüner Veltliner to Etude Pinot Noir), this isn’t just an excellent Thai restaurant; it’s an excellent restaurant, period.

THAI NAKORN (11951 Beach Blvd., Stanton; 714-799-2031) is a big, friendly place not far from Disneyland. The idiom here is Isaan cooking, from northeastern Thailand, involving lots of raw vegetables, intensely aromatic herbs, and a good measure of spice. Whole raw shrimp seasoned with lime juice and chiles and served with shredded cabbage is a definitive dish. Wild boar with chiles and assorted herbs, sliced barbecued tongue in a sweet-hot chile sauce, and steamed catfish cakes (like a dense soufflé in consistency) drizzled with creamy coconut milk are as savory as they are unusual.

WAT THAI OF LOS ANGELES (8225 Coldwater Canyon Ave., North Hollywood; 818-997-9657) is not a restaurant: It’s a Buddhist wat (temple), a large compound with an ornate main building, a chapel, and various educational and community facilities. Lovers of Thai food flock here from 11 A.M. to 5 P.M. on Saturday and Sunday, though, when a large assortment of well-cooked, inexpensive homemade Thai food is sold from two large stands. Four bucks will get you a plate heaped with rice and servings of two savory dishes, among them chicken larb (ground-chicken salad), spinach curry, curried fish and vegetables, and shredded green-papaya salad. Servers are very helpful in identifying and explaining the food.

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