Beauty and the Boat Noodles
Photo by Anne Fishbein
There is nothing at first glance to distinguish Sapp Coffee Shop from any of the other restaurants in Thai Town, neither an unusually inviting steam table nor a concentration in game, neither a late-night rock & roll crowd nor a roster of regional Thai specialties — no sataw beans, no crispy catfish salads, no Thai Elvis. Sapp has never made it into a guidebook or a Top 10 list, and the only time I remember it being mentioned in print, its owner implied that the restaurant closed early because its food could never hope to compete with the fancier cooking at the nightclub across the street. If Sapp registered at all as a Thai Town destination, it was for its Isaan-style grilled chicken, and even then, nobody I know had tasted it in years.
But Sapp may be the best lunchroom in Hollywood, a bright Thai restaurant, unrelentingly yellow inside, sharing a small mini-mall with a video shop and a place to get griddled Thai desserts, crowded at noon not with revelers, but with people who have come to Thai Town to shop and eat noodles, tripe soup, and pork curry stinky with slices of sour bamboo. Sapp is the Thai equivalent of Apple Pan, remarkable for its unremarkableness, a lunchroom where the virtues of homeliness become extraordinary when put in context with the shiny, glittery surfaces against which it might compete.
The boat noodles, for example, the stuff of any floating hawker or roadside stall in Thailand, is a brilliant dish, a murky, organ-rich beef soup amplified with shrieking chile heat, the tartness of lime juice locked in muscular poise with the brawny muskiness of the broth, to which the slippery, flash-boiled rice noodles seem to bring at least as much texture as substance. (You’re probably better off ordering the beef noodles rather than the “Special” noodles — unless you enjoy wrestling with great, reeking mounds of offal.) The “jade” noodles, tinted pale green with puréed herbs, are almost delicate, tossed with bits of barbecued duck and pork, dressed with sugar, garlic and a hit of Thai fish sauce, very close to the “General’s” noodles that are a specialty of Sanamluang across the street, but at the same time both more powerful and more refined. Even the pad see ew, fried rice noodles with meat and egg that are the star of two tourist menus out of three, are good: properly gooey, flash-seared to the sort of half-crunchy smokiness you find in the best Chinese chow fun.
I’ve never much cared for the stuff, but the presence of Thai “Spam” on a menu generally indicates a seriousness of purpose in an informal Thai restaurant, sour, house-made slabs of gelatinous pork sausage as pink and watery as the stuff from the can, stir-fried with rice or made into a salad, a substance whose only virtues may be nostalgic. At Sapp, there is also the nam sod, a gray salad of fried peanuts, crumbled pork and chewy slivers of pigskin, that is every bit as ugly as the “Spam,” but is delicious, as hard to stop eating as a bowl of popcorn.
You can get the usual bar snacks at Sapp, although the restaurant serves no alcohol: crisp-skinned Thai sausages hot from the grill and served with fried peanuts and slices of fresh ginger; green-papaya salad, som tom, in which the unripe fruit is shredded into a crunchy slaw powerfully flavored with dried shrimp; fried salted beef, a Thai beef jerky that is gamy, chewy and sizzled black at the edges; and a sweeter, softer jerky of dry-fried salted pork. When the cook gets around to it, there is sometimes freshly made tod mun, a delicious, loosely textured hand-chopped fish cake studded with tiny, fiery chiles and deep-served with a sharp cucumber salad that is as utterly different enough from the usual sugary compote to be a different creature altogether. I love the homestyle Thai-Chinese specialties, such as the cha-po, assorted barbecue served with rice and a tiny dish of fish sauce and ultra-hot bird peppers, and the soft, fragrant stewed duck with chiles. The peppery Isaan grilled chicken, which will be on at least half the tables in the restaurant, is indeed pretty wonderful, taut skinned and complexly aromatic, like a backyard-cookout chicken with a graduate degree from a department of Asian studies. It’s the kind of chicken you might be able to find on any block in Bangkok but which becomes utterly special here, 8,000 miles from home.
Sapp Coffee Shop, 5183 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 665-1035. Lunch and dinner 7 a.m.–8:30 p.m.; closed Wednesdays. Cash only. No alcohol. Takeout. Lot parking. Lunch for two, food only, $8.50–$14.50.
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