At 2:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning, Sanamluang Cafe, the crown prince of Thai noodle shops, may be the busiest place in east Hollywood. Cars triple-park in the lot, outdoor tables bustle, crowds jostle for a chance to be the next party of seven to cram into a booth designed to seat four.
After midnight, Sanamluang is a big place for musicians winding down after gigs at Spaceland or whatever, sad-eyed German tourists, the paint-spattered millions and Thai teenagers devoted to alternative lifestyles--it wouldn't be unusual here to overhear somebody at the next table proclaim that his life's great ambition is to become the Thai Liza Minelli.
Some people call the place Sammy's, others Sam's Lung. The Sanamluang is a park in Bangkok famous for a ceremony marking the start of the growing season--also for its kite-flying possibilities--but in non-Thai speaking Los Angeles, despite its perfectly phonetic spelling, it is also known as a name hard to pronounce.
It's as brightly lit as a Burger King, decorated with the odd newspaper clipping, the occasional photo of Bangkok. Back-lit transparencies of menu items above the counter have a washed-out, garish intensity you might not associate with bowls of Thai noodles, and it can sometimes be sport to guess the dishes in the pictures without checking a cheat sheet. Everybody's drinking giant tumblers of iced coffee, striped at the top with a halo of half and half instead of the traditional sweetened condensed milk; Thai iced tea; vivid-green Thai syrup drinks.
More, perhaps, than any other restaurant in Los Angeles, Sanamluang feels like Southeast Asia--crowded, noisy, high with the smells of garlic and fermented fish, a city place to duck into and out of in 20 minutes. This is the place to come for vast plates of rice fried with mint leaves, seafood and immoderate amounts of chiles, a dish so hot that when you eat it you may truly feel alive; for big, comforting bowls of chicken soup flavored with toasted garlic; for wide vegetarian noodles fried with Chinese broccoli and what seems like five bucks' worth of shiitake mushrooms; for broad, mild "emperor's noodles" stir-fried with egg, garlic and pork; for morning glory stems fried in bean sauce.
There is an extremely good version of the traditional combination cha-po, duck and crunchy bits of deep-fried belly pork, served with rice and fish sauce; Chinese broccoli fried with the crisped belly pork is utterly garlicky and rich. Green papaya salad may be an undistinguished version of the northeastern Thai standard--like many Thai noodle shops, Sanamluang is better on the Chinese end of the Thai-food spectrum--but other salads, especially the warm squid salad and the salad made with slivers of Chinese roast duck, can be fine.
Sanamluang used to be famous for the extremely complicated menu, with whole categories of dishes that could be ordered only after 10 p.m. or before noon or on Tuesdays and Thursdays; a dish of barbecued pig uterus available only at the Pomona location; and things like "rice flak soup with assorted pig offal" that were probably better left to the imagination. Fried hoy lai (cockles) in spicy sauce were on the menu as a late-night special for more than a decade, though nobody I knew ever managed to snag a plate. When I finally did succeed in obtaining a bowl of Chinese spaghetti, a sad little pasta with chicken broth and salty Chinese pickles, I understood why the restaurant served it only on Sunday mornings.
But the General's noodle soup, which could be christened after the deeds of a famous general in Thai history but was probably named for the fully uniformed Thai man--apparently a real general--who directs traffic in the cafe's parking lot on weekend afternoons, is extraordinary: thin egg noodles, penetratingly garlicky, garnished with bits of duck, barbecued pork, crumbles of ground pork, a couple of shrimp and a teaspoon of sugar, either dry or submerged in a clean, clear broth that may be the most soothing thing possible at the end of the night, especially enlivened with a few slices of the vinegared Thai chiles from the little jar on the table.
Dense, chewy patties of pounded sticky rice, not unlike Japanese mochi, are stuffed with a garlicky saute of leek-like Chinese greens and either steamed (which is OK, though they tend to be a little soggy) or fried to an oily crispness and served with a small dish of sweet bean sauce. Everybody who's been to Sanamluang more than once or twice has tried the rice cakes, and some people love them, but they are far from universally admired.
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WHERE TO GO
Sanamluang Cafe, 5176 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood; (213) 660-8006. Other locations at 12980 Sherman Way, North Hollywood, and 1648 Indian Hill Blvd., Pomona. Open daily, 9 a.m.-4 a.m. Cash only. No alcohol. Lot parking. Takeout. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $12-$18.
WHAT TO GET
Duck salad; General noodle soup; spicy mint-leaf fried rice.