Every now and then I bump into small restaurants that I pass on, not because they are awful but because they don't capture my imagination. My inclination is to put them aside for a rainy day.
It's a rainy day.
Pin Tong Cafe popped out of a group of vacant, newly renovated Melrose Avenue storefronts, next-door to an Indian restaurant that, sorrowfully, suffers from much the same symptoms of impending doom as Pin Tong: too much surrounding competition and not competitive enough. There are several excellent Thai restaurants on Melrose Avenue, including at least one top-of-the-line spot called Tommy Tang's Siamese Cafe. And there is House of Chan Dara on Larchmont Boulevard down the way, which also is better than most. Certainly a lot more fun and more hip than Pin Tong.
Such competition, I tell you, shouldn't happen to a dog.
What we have here is a David fighting Goliath. This David is small, somewhat weak-kneed without a liquor license, but apparently courageous (or foolish) enough to buck the big-timers in the area.
The place is small, clean, a living-room atmosphere of sorts, with decor, in keeping with a taste for plastic one finds rampant in Third World countries. The tendency of people from old civilizations to abandon the best of their own exquisite folk art and adopt the worst of what Western taste offers is a bit disconcerting. I remember searching desperately for traditional carved wooden spoons in Jordan only to find that flimsy, plastic ones had replaced wood in the marketplace. The storekeeper snubbed his nose at old wood and lauded new plastic.
Pod-like booths line one wall; open tables the other. Mom and pop (or sister and aunt, uncle and brother--does it matter?) are in the back working away whenever a customer ventures in.
Actually, I fantasize that lovers will discover such places and make them their own. For lovers, decor or even the food doesn't matter. I remember adoring a French restaurant in New York not because the food and ambiance were wonderful, but because it was the restaurant where my husband proposed to me. I fantasize that in 20 years lovers would go back to Pin Tong Cafe, order their favorite tom yum and yum yai and remember when. . . .
The food is really not bad at all. And there is take-out for people who don't want to stay. You can even get food delivered free of charge (within a reasonable distance), so you don't even have to go at all. The cooking, in fact, is no worse or better than the best Thai places in town. And just as predictable:
Let me recite the ways. (I guarantee the names will ring a bell.)
Pad Thai (those are the familiar fried noodles).
Yum yai (it's a shrimp-cucumber and egg salad).
Mussaman (cubes of beef with potato curry made with peanut and coconut milk).
Pa nang (that's sauteed shrimp with green beans).
Lard nar (rice and noodles).
Mee krob (the sticky, sweet, crispy rice noodles).
Tom yum (hot and sour soup).
Tom kah kai (spicy coconut soup).
Of course, there are the other familiar things, such as chicken stuffed with silver noodles, shrimp made with curry paste, barbecued ribs, honeyed duck, garlic shrimp, ginger pork, minted beef and all the noodle dishes listed on the menu as Chinese Thai, that will echo in your memory.
One thing that's slightly different from the others is the special vegetarian section in the back of the menu. It's worth a look if you want to try vegetarian for a change.
Dishes, they say, are prepared without MSG and you have your choice of spiciness, according to the number of asterisks alongside the dish--a symbol that has been canonized on Thai menus (even Indian now) in Los Angeles as a way of telling hot from not.
Portions are adequate and you get a free Thai tea or coffee when you order dinner. You get smiling and polite service but not without a glint of fear in the eye of everyone from the busboy to the cook. "Will they like it?" you can almost hear them asking.
I like it.
Pin Tong Cafe, 7015 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. (213) 931-2580. Open seven days, Monday through Friday for lunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner from 5 to 10 p.m.; dinner only Saturday and Sunday from 5 to 10 p.m. Minimum order for free delivery $6. Reservations suggested. Major credit cards accepted. Parking in rear or street. Dishes from $2.95 to $7. No liquor.