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At Home He's a Tourist

July 22, 1993|JONATHAN GOLD

The first place I ever ate Thai food, sometime in the mid-'70s, was a tiny mini-mall restaurant named Alex, on Western Avenue, a couple blocks south of Wilshire. I don't really remember what I had--probably shrimp soup, pad Thai and something fried with mint leaves--but I do remember being dared to swallow a spoonful of the powerful vinegar-peppers from a jar on the table ( yeowww !), and that the restaurant also operated as a doughnut shop just in case Thai food didn't catch on.

Even then, people were complaining that Thai food in Los Angeles wasn't anything like Thai food in Thailand. Mee krob noodles seemed already so cliched that it wasn't until last year that I actually got around to trying them. Chicken-coconut soup was destined to become as American as nachos or pizza. But as the Thai population of Los Angeles rose and swelled, so did the number of Thai restaurants, so did the quality of Thai ingredients grown locally, so did the mass of Thai food imports.

The range of Thai food available now in Southern California--"authentic" Thai food--is nearly as vast as the range of Chinese food: northern restaurants with their pork dishes, places with southern incendiary curries, Isaan restaurants with dozens of salads, cosmopolitan Bangkok-style curry houses and nightclubs, and porridge parlors and noodle shops.

At the L.A. Food Court at the new Thailand Plaza in Hollywood, you can find everything from Isaan beef-intestine salads to southern-style rice rich with toasted coconut and the smelly sataw

beans; on weekends at the big Buddhist temple in North Hollywood, there are great noodles, griddled roti bread smeared with sweet milk, and the best papaya salad around. Even the corner Thai take-out joint may turn out to be a secret source for regional foods, once you get used to the probability that the crisp-rice dessert or braised duck feet specialties that Thai people drive across town for may not even be on a menu crowded with angel wings and disco shrimp.

Herewith, a few regional favorites:


Dee Prom. Central Thai cooking is as much a quantifiable cuisine as the cooking from any other part of Thailand, and many of its more popular dishes make up the core of what most people think of as just "Thai food." Yet through Bangkok, all of Thailand flows, and a swank Bangkok-style restaurant--like a Beijing-style restaurant or a Paris-style restaurant--may be recognized as much for its sophisticated cosmopolitanism, a cuisine assembled from the various regions of the country, as it may for any specific dish. The cooking at Dee Prom, an elegant Thai nightclub near tango clubs and Armenian bakeries and Romanian groceries, ranges all over the country: crisp-skinned northern-Thai sausages hot from the grill, pungent with lemon grass, served with fried peanuts and slices of fresh ginger; the peppery Bangkok-style vegetable soup kaeng lieng , spiked with squash, intriguingly bitter; the southern kaeng paa , sometimes translated as "jungle curry," a thin, fearsomely spicy bamboo-shoot curry with pork or chicken; Isaan-style fried salted beef, a sort of Thai beef jerky that is gamy and full of juice; a fantastic, crunchy salad made with fish that has been shredded and fried until it looks like a mound of fish Rice Krispies. After 10 p.m. on weekends, the place fills up with Thai couples, a six-piece band takes the stage and the parking lot overflows with triple-parked cars.

5132 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, (213) 662-1367.

Yai is as authentic as they come, a bare-bones Hollywood restaurant serving informal Bangkok-style "people's food," and on a busy Saturday night it can take longer to grab one of the few tables than it does to order, eat and pay at a less crowded joint. Yai might specialize in central Thai cooking, but you don't really find this kind of stuff in Ventura Boulevard Thai places: fatty, crisp chunks of fried pigskin on a dark-green pile of Chinese broccoli whose vegetable bitterness cuts through the richness like a knife; a murky, intense beef broth spiked with anise, thick with bean sprouts and afloat with sliced beef and wonderful, gelatinous pieces of long-cooked beef tendon; crunchy, bias-cut catfish slices fried stiff as potato chips, smeared with a terrific, sweet curry paste. Here too are the blazing curries, the congealed blood soups and the heroically stinky dried-fish dishes for which Bangkok is known--as well as a truly spectacular salad of tripe.

5757 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, (213) 462-0292.


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