Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Traveling through Thai Town

Thai Town and Little Armenia are squished right up close to one another in the grid of East Hollywood, sometimes overlapping, their mingling tendrils making for some very strange-looking blocks indeed.  There have been times when I've been devouring a soujouk sandwich or dissecting a new box of almond cookies on the curb in front of some Armenian grocery when the scent of basil, turmeric and chilies comes wafting out of the restaurant next door, making me hungry all over again in a wholly new way.

I haven't yet explored the Armenian corners as much as I would like, but I've thoroughly ravaged Thai Town.  This is not to say, of course, that it's been ravaged enough.  Nothing ever has.

I've never been to Thailand.  I've glimpsed it in the Thai corners of Ruili and Phnom Penh, eaten countless plates of pad kee mow in the basement of a food court in Boulder, and that's about it.  I welcome its influence in Burmese, Khmer, and Vietnamese cuisine, and bow down to its ability to make me cry from spiciness.  But, like other Southeast Asian cuisines, it always soothes the fire it wrought with coconut juice immediately afterwards.  So I forgive it.

Although it's not in Thai Town proper, I find myself most often at Watdongmoonlek Noodle.  This used to be a microscopic place with 12 seats, no bathroom, and these uncomfortable wobbly stool-like chairs that left my long legs dangling like a child's.  They'd always fall asleep by the end of the meal, since I'd linger so long sipping their bizarre smoothie concoctions.

Its food has always been magical, and recently they renovated, expanding into the space next door.  Now they have a bakery AND a bathroom.  That's awesome in and of itself, but why else does Watdongmoonlek get my vote?

1. It's right smack between Silver Lake and Los Feliz and is affordable and doesn't suck, which is a miracle in and of itself.  (Aw, come on, 'Eastsiders' [and that nomenclature is another can of worms, I know], I'm sorry, but I wish one of you would successfully prove me wrong about this generalization.)

2. It does 'street Thai' and 'fancy restaurant Thai' equally well.  Want a plateful of sweetly charred pad see ew, and also perhaps an artfully arranged rambutan salad with swirls of coconut milk and precisely placed clusters of peanuts?  You don't have to go to two different restaurants anymore!

3. When it renovated, it left its low prices alone.

4. It's the first restaurant that picky me and my equally, but polar oppositely, picky uncle have ever agreed is delicious (with the possible exception of Western Doma Noodle).

5. It has lychee mint slushies.  It has pickled plum slushies.  It has pineapple basil slushies.  It has watermelon ginger slushies.  Mountains of icy slush topped with chilly fresh fruit.

Here's a slushy story: my ex-boyfriend was (and is) a vegetarian.  I tried in vain for years to get him to fall in love with food, but his perpetually stuffy nose, refusal to compromise his morals regarding animal flesh, and inordinate love for food like cereal, mashed potatoes, and steamed broccoli made this difficult, if not impossible.

However, he gamely tried his best, and we were a competitive pair, so whenever we'd go to places like Watdongmoonlek, or, say, Mil Jugos in Santa Ana - anywhere with an extensive and crazy drink menu - he'd quickly claim the craziest drink for himself, looking at me slyly as if to say 'who's the adventurous one now?'  At Mil Jugos, he ended up with something called a lulo, which tasted like someone took a lime and a jicama and spliced it with a cherry tomato.  At Watdongmoonlek, he ended up with the pineapple basil slushy.  (I had to take second place with my pickled plum slushy.)

And I've ordered just that slushy almost every time I've been back.  Even if I order basil-heavy dishes like the jungle fried rice.  You can't have too much basil!

Watdongmoonlek is delicious and reliable, and occasionally surprising, but when I want something that will force into existence whole new colonies of tastebuds on my tongue, I go to Jitlada.  I've written extensively on Jitlada before, so I won't reinvent the wheel by finding new ways to gush about it, but their dishes are so carefully and precisely balanced, with handfuls of perfectly complementary mystery herbs and spices, that each bite feels like a stop on a journey through a wildly exotic land.  Whenever I think I'm plateauing, that most of the tastes available to human beings have already touched my tongue, Jitlada disabuses me of that notion.

While fascinating and adventurous, Jitlada is also pricey, maddeningly crowded, glacially slow, and totally lacking in parking.  More often than not, I just want a quick bite, packed with flavor, for under $10, no pretensions.

For noodles - soup noodles and dry noodles, respectively - I have two go-to places.  For soup noodles, my pick is Rodded Restaurant for their excellent duck noodle soup.  It's dark-brothed, with duck textured as though it came right off a grill or out of a broiler.  It's tender, the fat is practically liquid, and very silky, and it still has its color.

For dry noodles, I go to Hoy-Ka Thai Noodles, which packs its namesake bowl with ground pork, pork liver, BBQ pork, pork meatballs, fish cake, and herbs and allows me to shoplift it from them for the ridiculously low price of $3.99.  Even though 90% of the bowl consists of different types of pork, each slice, ball, and chunk tastes unique.

For rice, Ruen Pair does a mean Cha-Po combination - its duck, pork belly, and BBQ pork are all cooked to their respective levels of perfection - and Pa Ord's crispy pork with holy basil is tooth-crackingly, greasily wonderful, with a spice chart so elevated that all but the most hardened diners should stop at 'medium'.  The deadly little pepper circles that look so innocuous blending into your basil are not innocuous at all, so treat them with respect.

In a category all its own is Spicy BBQ Restaurant, south of the meat of Thai Town, a place smaller than even the old Watdongmoonlek, with a sweet, friendly owner and a menu that starts out pedestrian but slowly morphs into mouthwatering at the Northern Thai end.  Its Northern special pork patties inspired me to go home and try to make a Thai fusion hamburger (this did not work, but the pork patties come close enough), and the spicy jackfruit has a back-of-the-throat kick that that distracts you from the oddly meat-like texture of the fruit.  The pork and the jackfruit are so indistinguishable that were I a terrible person, I could have easily fooled my vegetarian ex into eating this dish.

However, Spicy BBQ's Northern Thai Noodles did tempt a dining companion into taking her very first bite of blood cubes!  Usually, when someone points to the burgundy square and says 'what's that?' and I oh-so-casually say 'oh, you know, it's just blood cubes', they wince or reel back.  This dish looked so inviting that she merely shrugged and popped one in.

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