View more photos in Anne Fishbein's slideshow, "Pa-Ord Noodle: When in Thai Town, Eat Fire."
We've talked about this before, but the best way to go to a Thai restaurant in Los Angeles may be in the company of the composer Carl Stone, a dude so in love with food that he names his pieces after his favorite restaurants instead of just calling them his third sonata; a man so attuned to the concept of spicy food that he used to carry around a card, written in flowing Thai script, instructing chefs to crank the chiles up to 11. At Jitlada, he once persuaded the chef to prepare him a Southern beef curry so hot that it hurt him to pee for three days (the result of a level I hope never to experience). Even when he is dining with friends who don't necessarily see each Thai meal as the opportunity for a Defcon 2 medical experiment, the food is still pretty hot. He reacts to underspiced food the way I tend to when the wine is corked.
The last restaurant I took Carl to was Pa-Ord Noodle in Hollywood, a shinier-than-usual mini-mall dive with a reputation for great boat-noodle soup. If Pa-Ord sounds familiar, it probably should. Proprietor Lawan Bhanduram — Thai nickname, Ord — used to own Ord Noodle, another Thai Town boat-noodle specialist, before she sold it to a different family. Barely a year later, Bhanduram is back in business just a few blocks from the original shop, which may not be entirely sporting but was probably a good business decision. Pa-Ord rarely sees an empty seat.
Still, it can be disconcerting to walk into a restaurant that you know to be a descendant of another restaurant and see a review of a third, completely unrelated restaurant framed on the wall. Right inside the front door is a framed L.A. Weekly review of Noodle Thai Town from a decade ago, dominated by Anne Fishbein's photograph of Bhanduram wielding her ladle as if it were a shillelagh. On the opposite wall, a photomural shows Bhanduram making boat noodles in an actual boat on the Chao Phraya. A large, formal portrait of Bhanduram has a legend underneath, reading, "I'm not bossy. I just have better ideas.'' There are snapshots of a coquettish Bhanduram; of a maternal Bhanduram; and of Bhanduram as a young, sexy thing. It can almost snap your neck backward to see the actual Bhanduram holding court in a corner, shaving leeks with a sharp blade and barking out kitchen orders — in the context, she appears almost audio-animatronic.
If you're not in the mood for noodles at Pa-Ord, you're probably out of luck. There is a passable grilled Thai sausage, served with its usual accompaniments of peanuts and sliced, raw ginger, and a small roster of stir-fried dishes: the Chinese broccoli stir-fried with crunchy chunks of roast pork belly has its fans, as does the sweetish spicy shrimp. The pad kee mao — rice noodles flash-fried with ground chicken and lots of chile — tend to be fairly gummy, as does the numbingly sweet pad see ew tarred with thick, sticky soy sauce. You do not want the grilled pork balls.
A better bet may be the usual Thai soup noodles — I like the ones bathed in a clear, sharp, hot-sour broth flavored with four different kinds of chiles; in a thin, spicy broth with spareribs; or in a milder, well-garlicked broth with vivid-red, sliced Chinese barbecue pork. You choose your own noodle for each dish — the thick rice noodles may be more glamorous, but the skinny egg noodles are slithery in exactly the right way.
So does it come down to the boat noodles? It comes down to the boat noodles, submerged in a deep, slightly tart broth tinted chocolate-brown with its thickener of ground pork blood, garnished with scallions and skinny strips of tripe and slivers of beef, also with slablets of liver if your tastes run that way, which I admit mine sometimes do not. You will find crunchy bits of pork rind, crumbled right out of the bag into the soup. It is a nourishing dish, complex and filling, so that a small, $3.50 bowl will almost certainly be enough. And if you are with Carl, the flavors will be illuminated by the heat of a thousand suns, a heat that flatters and evens out the disparate smacks of the meat and broth the way a soundstageful of expensive klieg lights does the bumpy complexion of an actress. Singin' in the pain? We are, after all, in Hollywood.
PA-ORD NOODLE: 5301 Sunset Blvd., #8, Hlywd. (323) 461-3945. Open daily, 9:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Cash only. No alcohol. Difficult lot parking. Takeout. Noodles $3.50-$7.50. Recommended dishes: hot and sour noodles; boat noodles.