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It's the talk of Thai Town

Ask for the other menu: Regional cuisine is reinventing this scene.

September 19, 2007|Linda Burum | Special to The Times

A mound of fragrant jasmine rice arrives at the table piled high with a montage of slivered green mango, sliced lemon grass, finely cut green beans, bean sprouts, cucumbers and shredded carrots and cabbage. It's sprinkled with julienned kaffir lime leaves, ground dried shrimp and chile powder and served with a small bowl of sweet-salty budu sauce and a wedge of lime. The hostess comes to the table and with a large spoon tosses the whole fabulous salad together, telling you that her naam budu is made in-house with anchovies, herbs, lemon grass and garlic, and that you have to use all of the sauce that's given to you, along with a squeeze or two of lime, to get the right balance of flavor.

This is khao yam, a southern Thai specialty. And it's one of the reasons Thai cuisine in L.A. is great again, after more than a decade in the doldrums. Regional Thai cooking is returning to the fore, and the excitement is right there on the plate. In Hollywood, new owners at a Thai Town institution have amped up a southern Thai menu complete with some of the wildest curries and most intriguing salads (including the khao yam) you'll ever encounter. A multi-regional Thai restaurant with an extensive menu of northern, southern and central Thai dishes has opened in the heart of the San Fernando Valley. A couple of longtime Orange County Thai favorites known for their Isaan cuisine have remodeled or rebuilt, with plans to expand. And the energy just seems to keep building.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, September 21, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 18 words Type of Material: Correction
Thai restaurant: An article in Wednesday's Food section stated that Lum-Ka-Naad is in Reseda. It is in Northridge.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, September 26, 2007 Home Edition Food Part F Page 3 Features Desk 0 inches; 19 words Type of Material: Correction
Thai restaurant: An article in last week's Food section stated that Lum-Ka-Naad is in Reseda. It is in Northridge.

Beyond the familiar citified cuisine of Bangkok and the tropical central plains, rural regional cooking encompasses more assertive tastes and varied textures. Raw shellfish punctuated with sassy tartness. Aromatic herbs with transporting, pungent flavor. Dry-curry meats with searing heat.

But you have to know what to look for. Flip past the mee krob and tom yum kai and look for the special southern Thai menu or northern Thai menu in the back. Or it might be on a well-worn page stashed behind the cash register. Hunt it down. The dishes are apt to be the favorite foods particular to the chef's home village -- and the best Thai you've probably had in a long time.

Ask for help: If you show some interest, the staff will be happy to make recommendations.

In the past, although Thai restaurants found it more lucrative to satisfy the American palate with the familiar roster of central-style food -- pad Thai, coconut chicken soup -- a few would offer at least a couple of dishes from their own region. These places were few and far between, but in the '80s and '90s diners who had traveled in Thailand were thrilled to drive to Panorama City to Satang Thai to eat pungent kaeng leuang, a catfish curry filled with fermented bamboo shoots. In Hollywood, Chao Neua and V.P. Cafe offered northern specialties. As many Thai food buffs know, restaurants serving northeastern-style Isaan food were somewhat more abundant. But in the '90s, they started disappearing. After a while only a few northeastern-style restaurants remained to represent the powerful flavors of rural Thailand.

Happily, several new restaurants have taken their place.

One such spot is Lum-Ka-Naad in Reseda. Alex Sonbalee and his wife, Ooi, opened their multiregional Thai restaurant last spring. They're cooking the food of their own regions -- he's from Chiang Mai in the north and she's from Krabi in the south. Knowing that the L.A. area has the largest Thai population outside Thailand, they believed their cooking would woo Thais who miss dishes from home. Because few Thai restaurants serve regional cuisine in the Valley, they saw a niche.

"We also believed we could succeed because here in L.A. there are [non-Thai] people who understand our food," Alex Sonbalee says. Apparently, the Sonbalees are on to a trend. The upswing has coincided with increased investment from Thailand after the collapse of the Thai currency in 1997, Alex says. More Thai money in town means more demand for the highest level of Thai cooking, and restaurateurs are responding.

Each area of Thailand has a distinct flavor palette. You'll find the northern Thai mainstay of pork in rich spiced curries (some made without the coconut milk prevalent in central Thai curries) and in sausages spiked with ground lime peel and garlic, always served with "sticky" rice. The rich pork rounds the spicy flavors with its slightly sweet edge. In the northeast, colloquially known as Isaan, the cuisine is dictated by the region's harsh, dusty landscape with no access to the sea. Dried chiles, herbs plucked from the rice fields, lime and fermented fish lend their flavor to wild boar or raw freshwater shrimp. In the same region, many Thai-Lao dishes are similar but not as aggressively seasoned. Southern flavors are the boldest and spiciest, the herbs more pungent and the taste of fermented ingredients more apparent.

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The south

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