Just two Los Angeles Metro Rail stops from the grungy glitter of the Hollywood Walk of Fame is a whole different world — Thai, American and Angeleno. The neighborhood of Thai Town is buoyed by L.A. County’s Thai population, the largest in the country, a group big and hungry enough to sustain regionally specific cooking. The blood, bile and bitter herbs of Northern Thai cuisine, the lime-lashed food of the Northeast and the incendiary funk of Southern seafood are all available, dished up with a for-us-by-us flavor that rewards nostalgia-seeking natives and open-minded novitiates alike.
Despite its name, Siam Sunset (323-467-8935; 5265 Sunset Blvd.) is a prime breakfast spot. Attached to a motel, it’s the Thai iteration of a great neighborhood diner: a daytime dive that serves up soul-satisfying comfort — and cures for heartbreaks or hangovers — rather than dazzling destination eating. Locals leaf through Thai-language newspapers as they wait for their iced coffees ($2) to kick in. A thick, savory, oatmeal-esque rice porridge ($5.50 or $7.50, depending on its protein) or rice soup ($6.95 to $8.95) are gentle wake-up calls. Its version of a doughnut ($1.50) often runs out by noon, so get there early. Stubbier than their Chinese youtiao cousins, the fried fritters come with sweet condensed milk for dipping. Don’t miss the $4.95 specials menu, particularly the spicy curry with noodles, perfumed with Thai basil, and the rice noodles with pork. A tofu pudding with ginger juice makes for a sweet finish ($3.95).
Celebrated as a pioneer in regional cooking, Jitlada Restaurant (jitladala.com ; 323-667-9809; 5233 Sunset Blvd.) doesn’t take reservations and is mobbed every evening, so sneak in for lunch. This casual strip-mall spot serves unapologetic Southern Thai cuisine, with its lusty embrace of mouth-staining turmeric, pungent odors (stink beans or satoh, the sulfuric emanations of acacia leaves) and extreme heat. Less confrontational options include steamed mussels in fragrant, lemon-grass-spiked broth ($14.95) or addictive salads with — battered and fried spinach , pomelo (the milder direct ancestor of the grapefruit), or green mango and toasted coconut (all at $13.95 to $18.95). The adventurous and asbestos-tongued should flip to the last four pages of the menu for Jitlada’s Southern specialties. One less fearsome option is the Crying Tiger (beef or pork crusted with coriander and caramelized palm sugar, $12.95). Extreme eaters will enjoy a choice of meat dry-fried in a turmeric- and chile-heavy curry paste ($12.95). Those seeking liquid heat should order the fish-kidney curry ($18.95), acacia-leaf omelet and shrimp in sour soup ($15.95), or the Southern curry with “wild tea” leaves ($20.95) with clams. Cool down with the mango and sticky rice ($8) for dessert.
Lacha Somtum Thai Restaurant, (lachasomtum.com; 323-486-7380; 5171 Hollywood Blvd.), specializes in tart, punchy Northeastern or Isan cuisine, and the Thai national obsession of som tum. American diners probably have encountered “som tum Thai” — shards of green papaya pounded with peanuts, dried shrimp, and other accompaniments. But som tum, which roughly translates as “sour pound,” comes in endless varieties. It is less a material dish than a methodology, a mélange of highly seasoned ingredients bruised with a mortar and pestle. Adventurers should try the som tum with salted black crab, crab juices and fermented fish paste ($10.95) — the restaurant’s most assertive version of what food historians say is an earlier iteration of the dish, as eaten in the Isan region and neighboring Laos. It’ll sulk at the table, draped in black and sporting a stinky attitude. But for those who love its haunting, basso-profundo pitch, all others pale in comparison. If that’s too hardcore, Lacha has other options. Its chefs pound fruit, salted eggs, corn or a tangle of rice vermicelli; they even fry green papaya shreds into great nests and provide a zingy sauce for pouring over the top ($10.95 to 12.95).Round out your meal with terrific meat salads tossed with lime juice, herbs and toasted rice powder — a minced-duck larb crispy with cracklings ($13.95) or a smoky grilled-pork salad ($11.95). The fermented sausages ($9.95) and a spicy pork-rib soup ($13.95) are also delicious. Look for the Thai-language menu board and ask your server to translate, if you’re curious. Offerings can include an Isan bamboo salad or a tum with pickled mussels.
Thrupkaew is a writer based in Los Angeles.
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