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Iconic Neighborhood Restaurants: Thai Town

 

Thai people began settling in East Hollywood during the 1960s. Over the course of decades, Thai businesses carved themselves into an already dense East Hollywood. Sun-bleached facades gave way to a palette of Thai pastels as businesses opened in nooks and crannies in strip malls along Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards. Anchored by Thailand Plaza, a two-story complex that houses Silom Supermarket, a bookstore, and a restaurant upstairs, Thai Town is a bustling hub for the largest Thai population outside of Thailand. In 1999, a six block strip of Hollywood Blvd of East Hollywood became officially recognized as first Thai Town in the world.

Photo: Susan Park
Photo: Susan Park

The borders of Southeast Asian countries tend to be fluid when it comes to cuisines and peoples. Thailand shares many dishes with its neighbors: Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, and Myanmar. Thai cuisine is like a checklist of things that make a cuisine great. The region was a major player during the spice trade with Indian and Muslim merchants which also introduced global influences. Thailand has a royal cuisine and highly developed street food scene. The country is rich in agricultural diversity. The Thai government heavily promotes gastro-tourism to both Thailand and Thai Town.

 

Ruen Pair: The best Asian restaurants tend to specialize in a handful of dishes or a category of dishes. Ruen Pair specializes in papaya salad, made to order. Unripe, green papaya is hand cut into rough julienne, then pounded in a mortar and pestle with long beans, tomatoes, dried shrimp, lime juice, and peanuts or crab. The dishes here nod toward Northerneastern Thai, Isan, which is influenced by neighboring Laos. Open until 3:00 a.m. with 80 dishes on the menu, Ruen Pair is where large groups of Angelenos could agree there was something for everyone. It's where the food geek who has traveled to Thailand can slurp pork blood soup and the novice who always orders pork fried rice can meet in the middle. 5257 Hollywood Blvd., (323) 466-0153.

 

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Palms Thai Restaurant: Former home of Kavee Thongprecha, the legendary Thai Elvis, Palms is a reminder of Thai Town's larger environs, kitschy Hollywood. The place is open late for the inevitable bar and nightclub crowd that are built into neighborhood business. While Thai Elvis has since moved back to Thailand, the restaurant he helped catapult to fame has only become more popular, even after it moved several blocks west out of designated Thai Town. It's one of those restaurants that has gotten so much buzz that you try it at least once. And if you like dependable Thai food with forays into exotica, Palms Thai is for you. The main menu has standard issue Thai-Chinese dishes like wontons and eggrolls and the wild things menu has boar and deer.
5900 Hollywood Blvd, (323) 462-5073.

 

Yai Restaurant: Thailand is home to the largest number of overseas Chinese in the world, so it's no surprise that Thai Chinese are integrated in all aspects of society and have deeply influenced the cuisine. Yai Restaurant, one of the oldest Thai restaurants in L.A. and deserving of a mention in this neighborhood guide, specializes in Thai-Chinese dishes, in particular noodles. There are glass noodles, egg noodles, and rice noodles of various thickness served in soups or as stir-fries prepared Thai or Chinese style. There are also a handful of Cantonese noodle dishes via Toisan such as chow mein and chop suey. However, Yai's culinary claim to fame is their pork belly, whether it's served with Chinese broccoli or spicy basil. The pork belly is first braised until tender, then oven dried, and finally flash fried until the fat cap puffs up. 5757 Hollywood Blvd., (323) 462-0292.

 

Siam Sunset: Wedged into an America's Best Value Inn, Siam Sunset is a motel diner that serves Thai-Chinese breakfast foods that are primarily engineered to provide fuel for the person on the go. Ginger soup with tofu pudding and soy milk are the Thai equivalents of a breakfast protein shake. More substantial breakfasts include Chinese donuts dipped into condensed milk, and rice porridge with chicken, pork, fish, duck, or shrimp garnished with chopped green onions, a runny egg, and a small haystack of julienned ginger. There are brothier rice soups with similar garnishes. It's tempting to describe intestine with pickled mustard greens and pork blood soup as hangover cures. But they are more likely the dishes of poverty that provide much needed vitamins, minerals, and iron. 5265 W. Sunset Blvd., (323) 467-8935.

 

Jitlada: In the summer of 2007, Jitlada became a media darling shortly after a visitor from Chicago translated their Southern Thai menu and posted it on a Chicago based food forum. The post when viral within days. Shortly after, critical praise from the L.A. Times and L.A. Weekly spurred national accolades. While America was familiar with many mutations of Thai cuisine, Southern Thai was a rarity. Sweet, salty, sour, spicy, and bitter flavors tend to be amplified in Southern dishes. Ingredients such as mouth-puckering fresh turmeric, grassy pandan, astringent unripe fruits, and gamey fish liver are used assertively. Jitlada is owned and operated by a brother and sister team who are as different as night and day. The chef, Suthiporn Sungkamee, or "Tui" is a modest, press-shy man who prefers the kitchen to front of house work. His sister, Jazz, who leads service, is as gregarious as it gets. Customers fell in love with his cooking and the media swooned over her personality. 5233 W. Sunset Blvd., (323) 663-3104.

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