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A Classic All-American Thai Hamburger

June 23, 2002|PATRICIA SAPERSTEIN

Until recently, the burgers and fries at Silver Lake's Thai American Express Cafe were a well-kept secret among neighborhood residents. The unassuming 20-year-old diner (13 years in its current location) has long been a favorite stop for students from Ivanhoe Elementary to buy steamed rice after school--in fact, no Thai food "to be brought back" is a rule in the school handbook. But in the past few months, news of Thai-American's succulent burgers has been leaking out, fueled by word of mouth and postings on www.chowhound.com, a Web site where foodies trade restaurant raves and rants.

Manager Pete Bunnag seems a bit surprised at the sudden popularity. "People are calling from North Hollywood, Pasadena, everywhere lately," he reports. The basic burger starts at $3.45--not bad, considering its heft, three-quarter pound to 1 pound of meat. But the thing to order is the dauntingly enormous hamburger platter, at $7.45. A modest green salad with bean sprouts and a tangy Thai dressing kicks off the meal, which features an outsize patty with a pleasantly light texture and subtle flavor, like some sort of juicy pan-Asian meatloaf. Any pretension to lightness, however, is dispelled by the trimmings that come with the platter: cheese slices, sauteed mushrooms, heaps of perfectly caramelized peppered onions and, for a touch of excess, bacon. Avocado is also an option. Next to this decadent heap of flavors nestles a pile of perfectly browned, hand-cut, glistening-hot fries. Bunnag says there's no secret recipe to the burger, "just USDA choice beef, made fresh."

Thai American actually started out serving American fare; the menu also lists a salad with alfalfa sprouts as well as an incongruous selection of Eastern European comfort food and, of course, those burgers. A few years later, the Thai owners decided that the neighborhood was ready for some favorite Thai dishes as well. A Thai restaurant that serves chicken Kiev and health food, where hamburgers are the most popular item? Only in America.

*

THAI AMERICAN EXPRESS CAFE, 2903 ROWENA AVE., LOS ANGELES; (323) 663-1147.

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