Thai Me Up, Thai Me Down: My Love Affair With Los Angeles Thai Cuisine

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My love affair with Thai food began when I was about eleven. Growing up in the winding hills of Los Feliz, my neighborhood held a bevy of Thai restaurants--- little jewels of Massaman curry and tamarind noodle happiness existing within the urban sprawl of metropolitan Los Angeles. That was back in the 1970's. And it's still that way, although you can find Thai restaurants everywhere, all over Los Angeles. Doorknob flyers list lunch specials, mostly the usual Pad Thai noodles, or Pad See Ew, with your choice of meat, shrimp or tofu for vegetarians, a selection of curries, fried rice and satay. I can only guess that authentic Thai cuisine emulsified into its own Angeleno style, blending its spices into the multi-ethnic flavor palette of our city's culture, and now in 2013 Thai cuisine is as common as frozen yogurt shops, taco stands, and food trucks.

Thai restaurants are just about everywhere here in L.A. Because I love Thai food so much, I was curious to know more about its evolution and beginnings. I did a search on the history of Thai food in Los Angeles, and found several informational excerpts:

1968, Los Angeles. First [unnamed] Thai restaurant opens in L.A. 

"The menu here is crammed with noodles: Thai rice noodles, Chinese egg noodles, Vietnamese rice stick noodle soup, even stir-fried spaghetti. "My whole life I've been involved in restaurants," says John Mekpongsatorn, the 23-year-old restaurateur who created Noodle World, an Alhambra eatery that combines a Denny's-style fast food atmosphere with what amounts to a global tour of noodles. "My favorite thing to eat, of course, was noodles." Mekpongsatorn is the latest heir to a family dynasty of Asian cuisine that dates back to 1930 in Thailand. That year, his grandfather migrated from China to open a Chinese-Thai restaurant in Bangkok.

In 1968, his father, Surabon, opened some of the first Thai restaurants in the Los Angeles area.

John Mekpongsatorn decided his own restaurant would consolidate all his favorites in one menu, and offer hefty portions of quick, cheap, flavorful food."---"Trip for Noodles Will Do a World of Good" Deborah Sullivan, Los Angeles Times, March 2, 1995

Two excerpts, one by Coleman Andrews and another by Jonathan Gold:

1969: Los Angeles, Thai Kitchen

"The first Thai restaurant in Los Angeles...opened in 1969, on Vermont Avenue and Eighth Street, and was by all accounts little more than a food shop with a few tables. (It closed in the early 70's and no one seems to able to remember its name)."---"With Satay and Tiger Prawns, Fiery Thai Food Is a Hit in L.A." Colman Andrews, Los Angeles Times, July 8, 1990 

"This is some of what is burned and gone, just within walking distance of my apartment: Vim and Arunee and the Thai Kitchen on Vermont just north of Ninth, among the oldest Thai restaurants in Los Angeles..." 

---"A Neighborhood Just West of Downtown" Jonathan Gold, Los Angeles Times, May 7, 1992

And a hint about the history of Thai food circa 1970's Los Angeles by veteran L.A. Times food critic Lois Dwan:

"Dining experiences in Los Angeles have been enriched by the recent addition of several Thai restaurants, serving a cuisine that resembles the Chinese, the Indonesian and the Indian, but makes its own clear statement that there are more flavors on heaven and earth than have yet been put together. The restaurants are worth the attention of connoisseurs, not only because the foods are subtle and rewarding, but because they are fresh and new, not yet weakened by the gentle American art of compromise. The Orient is a small, spare, ordered restaurant, owned by Parneet Kongkeo and his sister, Aree Kongkeo, who is the chef."---"Roundabout," Lois Dwan, Los Angeles Times, February 7, 1971

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"One reason for the increase in Thai restaurants in Los Angeles is that we now have 6,000 Thai students here." ---"Roundabout" Lois Dwan, Los Angeles Times, April 4, 1971 

I recall my first dishes: Mee Krob, Chicken Satay, Pad Thai noodles, and Tom Kha soup. I fell for the creamy sweet Thai iced teas as decadent as a milkshake--- the condensed milk and sugary tamarind color swirling together in the glass. Americanized Thai dishes were my first tastes. Cashew nuts, coconut milk, chilis, lemongrass, galangal root, kaffir lime leaves, all came to my palate later. But as a girl, I was quite content to sip on my Thai iced tea, fill my mouth with the sticky-sweet crunch of Mee Krob, tamarind-colored Pad Thai noodles, and a charred stick of chicken satay slathered with peanut sauce. To follow those indulgences, a dessert of either coconut ice cream or fried bananas. That, to me, was heaven.

And it still is.

Nowadays my craving for Thai food begins with a daydream of panang curry soaking into sticky rice. I have nourished my soul with many a curry and a fluffy bowl of rice when I have a desire for comfort food. Coconut milk laden curries are my most favorite, in particular the green curry with fresh leaves of basil, kaffir lime, lemongrass, coriander root and vegetables, and the hearty Massaman curry with its cashews and potatoes in a stew the color of cumin, shrimp paste, red chili and turmeric spice. Comfort food like Thai curry with rice has taken its place in my life as my main staple. There's something that happens to my soul when I taste that spoonful of rice soaked in oily, fatty and rich coconut milk curry. It calms my mind, and I'm happier, the day melts away and nothing else interferes.

Thai noodles are another pleasure that I have always enjoyed. I didn't realize how very much I would miss Thai noodles, until I was living somewhere without. Santa Fe New Mexico's culinary offerings, although delicious in its own right, did not have a restaurant with authentic Thai-style noodles, and neither did New Orleans. Pad Thai. To me, there's nothing like it. Pad woon sen (cellophane noodles), rice vermicelli, thin egg noodles (or ba mee)-- served in curry sauces, tamarind, lime, egg, fish sauce (nam pla), or quickly pan fried with dry seasonings and chili--- there are so many ways to make noodles.

I have a fondness for steamed sticky ricekhao neow, which soaks up the coconut milk curries so perfectly, and is also served up sweet as a dessert with freshly sliced mangoes.

Basil, bean sprouts, cardamom, chili, turmeric, kaffir lime, fish sauce, galangal root are all exotic and delightful. These ingredients have infused themselves into my palate over the years, and I find them as familiar and as comforting as homemade bread. To call them exotic when I know these flavors well is a realization of how accustomed I have become to eating Thai style a la Los Angelenos.

A favorite Silverlake Thai restaurant, Sompun, has been there since the 70's, but I discovered it when I lived in a loft in downtown Los Angeles during the early 1990's. I frequented that place so often it felt as though I was family, and the interior was more like someone's home than a restaurant proper. The outdoor patio, a secret garden, surrounded by greenery, just the perfect spot to linger over a meal, with no hurry to pay the check. For some time I was addicted to their type of tofu--- large spongy cubes that soaked up any sauce or curry--- how I loved the liquid squeezing out in my mouth, bursting with flavor. Their fried bananas were unparalleled by far; doughnutty in texture with melting hot banana slices cocooned inside  a crust of sweet fried dough. It seemed simple, yet the chef would not disclose her recipe.

Generally the noodle dishes and curries cross over in Los Angeles Thai food versus authentic Thai food. I am just learning about the just-like-Thailand sort of meals that local Thai folks eat in Los Angeles, as they emphasize, real Thai. But the flavor base is close to its origin: lemongrass, shrimp paste, cilantro, coriander, ginger. These create the bouquet of fragrant pleasure in Thai cooking. And ginger. Let's not forget that ginger is an aphrodisiac. I have experience to prove this. Without disclosing the intimate details, the ginger pork curryat Spicy [Thai] BBQ is the ultimate aphrodisiac discovery. A hidden jewel box tucked away in a little nook at Santa Monica Boulevard and Normandie Avenue, Spicy Thai BBQ is a find.

When I first experienced the charm of this tiny dollhouse of a Thai restaurant, I had taken the afternoon off and spent the day at a favorite Korean spa in neighboring Koreatown. Since the restaurant was close, my (then) boyfriend took me to eat dinner at Spicy BBQ. I've been changed from my usual vegetarian ways and adventuring into the meatier dishes and fishing around the waters of seafood. I just can't be a foodie adventurer without expanding my palate. We ordered Tom Kha soup with shrimp and papaya salad or som tam (Thaiส้มตำ, pronounced [sôm tam]).

Then we ordered the Ginger Pork Curry with sticky rice. Absolutely ambrosial unctuous pleasure on rice. I wanted more.

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While Spicy BBQ offers Northern style Thai cuisine, Jitlada offers Southern style (and dynamite hot spicy) Thai cuisine. Jitlada is a Thai Town landmark, where the owner and grand dame of Thai food in Los Angeles, Jazz Singsanong, welcomes her guests with a warm greeting and treats everyone like family. Her brother, Suthiporn Sungkamee, known as Chef Tui, is the master of spicy, adding chilies and other hot spices to the dishes on Jitlada's extensive menu. Jitlada’s Morning Glory Salad is a combination of fried morning glory with sweet shrimp in a spicy lime dressing and fish sauce that awakens your mouth with texture and Thai flavors. Thai beer, Singha, and Thai tea, along with a tall glass of ice water, is essential to accompany any meal.

My favorite dishes at Jitlada are the turmeric curry fried rice and pumpkin salmon, although my first try of green mussels was heavenly in a lemongrass-infused green curry broth.

It was the most memorable flavor with its pungent lemongrass fragrance--- worth slurping up every drop of the broth--- the oceanic briny essence soaked into the starchy pillow of my jasmine rice.

The aroma of steamy jasmine rice, another bowl on the table, a feast for the senses.

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But spicy is what spicy does, and Jitlada holds the Los Angeles title as the Thai chili heavyweights in town. Chef Tui's Dynamite Spicy Challenge: add "dynamite" to anything--- chicken, beef, pork, shrimp, scallop, mussels, lamb, frog legs, tofu, lamb rack, salmon, eel, eel fillets, red snapper, catfish fillet, halibut, seabass steak, soft shell crab, king crab legs, dungeness crab, whole sea bass, giant prawns, lobster tail or mixed seafood--- anything can become dynamite.

And that is exactly what happens. An explosion of chilies in your mouth permeates through your tongue, setting a fiery inferno of capsaicin magma off, burning the back of your eyeballs. Your endorphins pulsate from the forkful of fire, and you feel like a veritable human firework of Scoville intensity. Do you know that ending scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when the ark is opened and the villain's face melts and there's fire? That was me after one bite of Chef Tui's dynamite. Thai chilies were completely face melting hot. You'll get high quickly and never finish that plate. Too hot for some, dangerous pleasure for others. Although I'm a lover of spice, I tasted the dynamite sparingly and was certain that I'd end up in the emergency room with some kind of hole burned into my stomach. Of course, I'd be unable to speak as well, but that's the kind of spicy that Thai chilies create. Jitlada's heat level is volcanic and addictive. Like that passionate lover you know is trouble but you can't give them up because the sex is so screaming good, why wouldn't you want burning hot pain with fiery pleasure during your meal?

But Thai food isn't all about heat. It's also about incredible flavors and textures, creative combinations of sweet, sour, spicy, citrusy, starchy, crunchy, velvety, fatty, aromatic and savory.

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Chef Kris Yenbamroong of Night+Market is wildly revered in the current Los Angeles food scene for his umami-inducing sensual flavors that brings Thai street food to Sunset Boulevard. In a no-frills atmosphere you can enjoy Thai food for drinking, like the Japanese version of an izakaya, as the menu inspires pairing with beer and wine. Eat more and drink more. Celebrate. I had the good fortune of trying Night+Market's offerings and was pleasantly introduced to the street by way of brothy drunken noodles and panang tang--- sweet, spicy, garlicky, herby, earthy and incredibly good. Handwritten menus, veladora candles on the table, the authentic street Thai food is the center of attention. I was taken by the unique quality of Night+Market among the many Thai places I had eaten at before, and my quest for the hippest street Thai taste was nourished that evening.

With such bounty in Thai restaurants, Los Angeles' cultural Thai community flourishes and expands down to its L.A. roots, evident at the Thai Food Festival held on the grounds of Paramount Pictures on Melrose Avenue recently. I went and tasted so many delights known and unknown, such as exotic fruits like rambutan and mangosteen, hand opened by the vendors, and eaten out of my sticky, juice drenched hand. I stood in line for 20 long and sweaty minutes, wearing a black dress in the direct California sun for a single thirst quenching coconut, freshly cracked open by the one person with a machete.

A long row of stalls boasting Los Angeles' finest celebrity chefs such as Chef Jet Tila, Chef Sang Yoon of Lukshon, Chef David LeFevre of MB Post, Chef Susan Feniger of Border Grill and Susan Feniger's Street, Chef Alan Ricker of Pok Pok, and many others, including Jitlada's Chef Tui, and Chef Kris Yenbamroong of Night+Market, filled the Paramount Pictures front entrance grounds. It was the the very first Thai Food Festival held in Los Angeles with many sponsors, co-sponsors and presenting partners, showcasing Thai cuisine in Los Angeles.

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Umbrella painting, fruit carving, and other Thai arts were demonstrated, along with a procession of glorious bejeweled dancers parading through the festival. Thai dance was performed joyously onstage after speakers like Evan Kleiman of KCRW’s Good Food and Chef Jet Tila hosted a culinary panel on Thai Cuisine in America. There were celebrity chef speakers such asCurtis Stone, Andy Ricker, and Kris Yenbamroong presenting as part of the supportive community that embraces Thailand as an integral part of our culinary melting pot.

My daughter and I nibbled on little boats filled with Pad Thai noodles and other traditional tastings. Of course, I indulged in spicier flavors and sweet tastes, then went off to the massage tent for a relaxing Thai style chair massage treatment. Coconut water in many forms, canned, fresh and carbonated, were had après-massage by happy festival goers like myself.

With all of the many places to eat in Los Angeles, you'll never run out of great Thai restaurants to choose from. Thai food, real Thai food, eaten Angeleno style, the kind I grew up on, the taste I crave, the Tom Kha that makes me feel better when I'm catching a cold, the curry and rice that's comfort in a bowl, homestyle Thai, my love affair will never end. One day I hope to go to Thailand, but for now, I have a feast of Thailand in Los Angeles.