From the window of a car, Khun Dom may look like the least-promising Thai restaurant in Los Angeles, a weary, faded building in a liquor-store parking lot, with bars on the windows and painted-out graffiti on the walls that you have probably spent a little too much time observing while stuck in the choked traffic near the Melrose on-ramp to the Hollywood Freeway. In the years I established residence at the punk-rock club that used to be across the street, most of the visiting bands ate at Khun Dom precisely once — the Thai classics were dismal, even by sound-check standards, even to the palates of people who basically took every meal at the Oki Dog, Arthur J’s or Norm’s.
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Hardcore at Khun Dom: Nam kaow tod, below, as addictive as buttered popcorn and, at bottom, spicy larb
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All these years later, half the customers at any given time still seem to be Salvadorans eating shrimp-fried rice, seafood soup and deep-fried won tons, which may say something about the basic quality of the kitchen, but probably not much about its Thai bona fides.
But Khun Dom has always been one of the places that local Thais tend to recommend when you pump them for recommendations, and the hand-cut papaya salad often comes up when you start discussing the best in the city. There may be sweet-and-sour pork on the menu, but there is also an odiferous curry of fish kidneys with bamboo, spicy beef-intestine soup, and koi soi, a concoction of raw meat seasoned with beef bile that is about as hardcore as Thai cooking gets. (I love the sharply flavored koi soi at Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas, but Khun Dom’s grainy, liver-intensive version of the dish is too much even for me.) The chicken satay is sweet as candy, but the spicy chicken larb, a salad of minced meat seasoned with toasted rice powder, dried chiles, fresh mint and lime, is clearly handmade.
And if you spend even a moment in the late afternoon sniffing the briny notes of salted crab coming from the kitchen, listening to the pounding of the mortar and pestle, watching cooks laboriously stripping pale shreds from a big, green papaya, it becomes obvious: Beneath the shell of a mediocre urban café, Khun Dom is as Thai as it gets.
The staff of the restaurant tends to be cagey about the origins of the chefs, but it is clear that the strength of the kitchen lies in the Isaan-style salads from eastern Thailand, a type of cooking that is extremely popular in Bangkok but is hard to find, at least in its correct form, in Hollywood — toasted rice and fiery chiles, salted crabs and odd organs, properly eaten with your fingers, scooped up with a ball of sticky rice.
Khun Dom has especially lousy pad Thai noodles, limp and way oversweetened, but a really fine glass-noodle salad with pork and chiles, a good fermented-bamboo salad with the funk of the stables about it, and a squid salad that tastes of the sea. I never ended up trying the beef “chop suey,” but the nam tok is delicious: grilled slabs of marinated beef, black and sizzling at the edges, singing with the flavors of citrus and rare meat. You can skip the fried won tons, but you should try the crisp-skinned grilled sour sausage with fresh ginger, chiles and fried peanuts, which would be the perfect food to nibble with beer — as would the dense, peppery beef and pork jerky — if the restaurant bothered to pick up a liquor license. (It’s fine to pick up a Singha at the liquor store across the parking lot. They’ll even open it for you.)
The rich chicken-coconut soup may be fairly standard, although it seems to be enriched with extrathick coconut cream, but the beef-tendon soup, made with soft-boiled tendons, lots of shaved meat and a double-strength version of the exotically spiced broth you probably know from boat noodle soup, could tempt you to put aside any anti-offal prejudices you might have.
The star dish at the restaurant is probably the nam kaow tod, a sort of salad made with crumbles of pork, slippery bits of stewed pork skin, fried peanuts and a crunchy matrix of deep-fried rice, sluiced with yet more lime juice and chile, a dish as hard to stop eating as buttered popcorn.
I only regret that I didn’t know about nam kaow tod in the days when the Minutemen seemed to play across the street at the Anticlub at least one or two times a week.
Khun Dom, 4681 Melrose Ave., Hlywd., (323) 663-1086. Open daily 10 a.m.–10 p.m. No alcohol. Takeout and delivery. Lot parking. MC, V. Dinner for two, food only, $12–$24. Recommended dishes: beef nam tok; papaya salad with raw crab; grilled Thai sausage; nam kaow tod; beef tendon soup; Thai pork jerky.