Picnic at the Temple

Coldwater Canyon Boulevard is drab and endless as it courses through North Hollywood, lined with cheap liquor stores, auto body shops and the bland apartment buildings that local architects call dingbats. But at the upper end of the street, right where it changes names and plunges into a post-industrial wasteland of factories and gravel pits, is the majestic, gold-encrusted dome of Los Angeles’ Wat Thai, the largest Thai Buddhist Temple in the country, grounds crowded with parishioners, and thronged with small children, many of them in neat Buddhist-school uniform, clutching coconut ice cream cones, who dart about as if the temple were a playground. At festival time, the temple comes alive with the sounds of amplified chanting, the high, acrid scent of incense, and the monotonous prayers of the saffron-robed monks.

On weekend afternoons, the temple hosts a dozen or so outdoor kitchens, arrayed around shaded picnic tables in a manner reminiscent of the great food courts of Southeast Asia, and the air around the temple almost throbs with the smells of basic Thai cooking: sliced beef grilling over charcoal; the wheat pancakes called roti sizzling on massive griddles; pungent, briny salt crabs being pounded in big mortars with fiery-hot green papaya salad. Long lines form for noodle soups garnished with duck, with stewed pork hocks or with Thai pickles; for big plates of the intensely herbal grilled-beef salad larp; for fried fishcakes; for crisp omelets filled with mussels and for vanilla-scented Thai iced tea. The kids love using the colorful plastic tokens, which you buy at a central booth and exchange for food as you go, almost as much as they love the grilled shrimp balls on a stick.

If you’ve attended services at African-American churches, you may be familiar with the massive spreads of smothered chicken and collard greens that sometimes follow the sermon. This is the Thai version: delicious, screamingly spicy, and attended by all Los Angeles.

Wat Thai of Los Angeles, 8225 Coldwater Canyon Blvd., North Hollywood; for more information, visit www.watthaila.org.


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