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The Comeback 

Thailand Plaza

Wednesday, Sep 5 2001
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Above a sleek Thai supermarket and behind a soaring Buddhist shrine, concert strobes flashing, vibrating with the sounds of 12-piece rock bands on the huge stage, the L.A. Food Court at Thailand Plaza was the single greatest monument to Thai cooking in North America when it opened, eight separate Thai kitchens grouped around a central seating area -- all-star kitchens representing Thailand and the best Thai restaurants in California, specializing in Isaan salads and snail curries, pale sausage buns and chilled coconut juice, duck noodles and fried morning glory and dried-shrimp desserts. The 400-odd dishes on the collective menu made up a living thesaurus of cuisine from every part of Thailand, a more persuasive argument for the rude vitality of multicultural Los Angeles than all the Peter Sellars--produced L.A. Festivals combined. I probably ate at Thailand Plaza 30 times in the first few months it was open, and I probably should have tried to make it over there 30 or 40 times more. What the Olympic Auditorium was to thrash aficionados in 1981 and Compton’s Skateland was to gangsta rappers in 1986, Thailand Plaza was to lovers of Thai food in Los Angeles in 1993: the place where everything came together.

It was probably too volatile to exist long in its platonic form, and after a few months the restaurant started to fall apart. The service slipped first -- it is hard enough to pace the output of one kitchen, much less eight -- and then the chefs one by one moved back to their home restaurants, which included Ruen Pair and Renu Nakorn. The entertainment became less ambitious, tending more toward lounge singers than the big-name Thai acts the space had presumably been built to attract. The crowds dropped off. And the level of cooking seemed to worsen by the week. Every so often a friend would call to complain about a flabby lobster or an inferior fish-ball curry (a review I‘d written in 1993 was still in the window), and I would be surprised that the restaurant was still open at all.

Still, the physical space itself remained magnificent, the only conceivable Thai rival to the grand Hong Kong--style seafood palaces, and when the city designated its stretch of Hollywood Boulevard an actual neighborhood, its size and flashiness made it the natural center of Thaitown. The sheer cheesiness of the besequined musical acts, particularly that of a singer who calls himself the Thai Elvis, attracted a certain amount of attention from scenesters eager to explore the vast world of music lying just to the left of Marty and Elayne. I’d stopped in every couple of years myself. But when I stopped by Thailand Plaza a couple of weeks ago to check out a report of a decent fried-rice dish, the last thing I was expecting was a great meal.

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There was a decent version of that Bangkok-style salad made with various vegetables, a fiery lime-juice dressing, and large chunks of an airy, crunchy substance made of catfish minced fine and deep-fried to resemble slabs of Rice Krispies Marshmallow Treat. Quartered preserved eggs, black and shiny as onyx, had been fried, sluiced with chile and lime, and garnished with big handfuls of deep-fried basil leaves. An Isaan salad of fermented bamboo shoots, alive with a mild stink of clean stables, was tossed with a powder of ground, toasted rice and a flurry of flaked smoked fish imported from Thailand. The papaya salad with salted raw crab was good, stingingly hot. The nam sod kao tod, a crunchy dish of fried peanuts, ground pork, slivered pig‘s ears, raw ginger and toasted rice that is one of my favorites, approached the excellence of the version at Renu Nakorn. And those were only the salads.

The new menu at Thailand Plaza is an unusual document, a series of professionally styled food photographs that have been labeled with the names of the pictured dishes in Thai and in English translation, laminated, and gathered into a dossier. Kang som kang with cha om becomes immediately legible as a sort of spicy shrimp soup spiked with squares of egg-battered fried greens; nam prik as a thin, chile-red dip served with vegetables and a small, perfectly fried whole mackerel; har mok as a fish steamed in leaves until it collapses into a fragrant mousse, then garnished with chiles and coconut milk.

In subsequent meals, I have loved the salad made with crispy, stinky bits of fried salted fish; the dense, sweet Thai beef jerky; and the sweet-smelling Isaan grilled-beef dish called ”crying tiger“ for its ability to raise tears of hunger in a big cat’s eyes. The version of prik king, a mixed-meat dry curry with string beans and grainy strings of cooked egg yolk, was unusually good even for a part of town where prik king is as common as cookies. I liked the dense, evilly garlicked ground-pork curry served on puffy, runny-yolked fried eggs. And the fried rice, which looked something like a cobb salad under its garnishes of Chinese sausage, egg and stewed vegetables, was indeed wonderful.

Thailand Plaza may no longer be the most ambitious Thai restaurant on the planet -- it may, in fact, no longer be the most ambitious Thai restaurant on its block -- but it once more is nearly as formidable as its room.

5321 Hollywood Blvd.; (323) 993-9000. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Dinner for two, food only, $24--$34. Full bar. Entertainment. AE, MC, V. Recommended dishes: yum catfish foo; nam sod; prik king; smoked fish soup.

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