Beyond Pok Pok, Some of America's Best, and Cheapest, Thai Isaan Cuisine
Papaya salad (som tum).
On Tuesday, Sept. 9, 2014, the City of Los Angeles received the momentous news that Portland-based chef Andy Ricker will be opening two of his wonderful restaurants, Pok Pok and Pok Pok Phat Thai, at the Far East Plaza in L.A.'s Chinatown.
This is important for many reasons, of which the most pertinent is that in as soon as three months we will have the readily available option of eating delicious Thai food at the Far East Plaza in L.A.'s Chinatown. More abstractly, it's the latest confirmation that Los Angeles, and by extension America, is undergoing something of a Thai food revolution. It's with great pleasure that we can say that the number of Americans intimately familiar with nam prik ong will soon rise dramatically.
Night + Market, a restaurant relatively comparable to Pok Pok, has already introduced L.A. to its Northern Thai and Isaan menus, which are among the best in the Western Hemisphere. That's not to say that there weren't options before now. Pailin, a humble family-run shop in Thai Town, has been cooking its wonderful khao soi for a couple decades. Unfortunately, Southern Thai, for which L.A.'s standard-bearer remains Jitlada, is still relatively obscure.
But Isaan food warrants more discussion. It's an extraordinary cuisine, but is also one that's absolutely wacky, seemingly designed to aggravate the casual eater’s palate. The ingredients are generally simple – where simple can easily mean any animal a human can manage to get its hands on, including lizards and beetles – but it's usually the hallmark of Asia’s great cuisines to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary. For that education, you can find deep Isaan menus at Thai Town's Lacha Somtum and Koreatown's Isaan Station.
An Isaan salad of rice noodles and pickled blue crab.
To understand Isaan food, and Lacha Somtum in particular, is to understand papaya salad. While the birthplace of papaya salad is technically Laos, the Isaan region of Thailand, which borders Laos, is thought to produce the best versions in the world.
There are few foodstuffs as miraculous as som tum, a blend of unripe papaya, lime, chili, palm sugar, fish sauce, garlic, and dried shrimp. For some, it’s the quintessential Thai dish, explicitly designed to run the gamut of flavors experienced by homo sapien taste buds: sweet, tangy, sour, spicy, often funky. The ingredients are traditionally pounded together with a wooden pestle and clay mortar, and the papaya, as tough and crunchy as it is, withstands the force of the pounding to the degree that the flavors are literally imprinted into each slice. The resulting sound – pok pok – is the inspiration for the name of Ricker’s growing culinary empire.
It is not just that som tum tastes good - which it certainly does - but also that, in Thailand, the salad is available practically everywhere: street corners, restaurants, bars, shopping malls. At some movie theaters, you may munch on pungent slices of papaya in addition to Milk Duds. It’s very possible, as stunning a thought as this is, that it’s actually easier to eat som tum in Thailand than it is to eat a Big Mac in America.
That speaks to a critical difference between the Big Mac and som tum, and thus America and Thailand: That som tum, though cheap and widely available, is a dish worthy of obsession, and that if America, like Thailand, realized that a powerful food culture is one that permeates both top and bottom, we would be living in a much more successful civilization. Eating astoundingly delicious som tum in Thailand is not about waving a corporate credit card; a few quarters will probably suffice.
Alas, Los Angeles is not in Thailand, a fact worth regretting on occasion. But we do have Lacha Somtum, which is L.A.'s de-facto papaya salad ambassador. The kitchen offers at least twenty different versions of som tum at any given time. You can eat papaya salad in its traditional Central Thai form (som tum Thai), but you may also have it with noodles, salted eggs, or, if you are feeling particularly Isaan, with raw, pickled blue crab and a fermented fish sauce funky enough to make vampires run toward garlic. The version with catfish, minced and fried into a light pillow of crunch, is particularly gorgeous and enticingly edible, even for the odd squeamish eater who is unfortunate enough to find themselves dining at an Isaan restaurant.
Beyond som tum, there will often be a board with Isaan specials, and at Isaan restaurants, it’s best to look out for the staples: the likes of gai yang, maybe the world’s ultimate grilled chicken; sai krok Isaan, a fermented sausage of pork and glutinous rice; tom saab, a cleansing herbal soup; and pla som, a fish marinated with garlic and salt and left to ferment outside for a few days before being fried.
The kanom jeen, Thailand's universal vermicelli noodle dish, arrives with a fish-based curry that could very well be the spiciest liquid in Los Angeles right now. A few sips will provoke a bodily reaction that one could reasonably argue warrants immediate medical attention. (When you choose to order kanom jeen, your waitress will sigh skeptically, sternly warn you that you are in danger of making a poor life decision, and, when you confirm your desire to eat it anyway, she will shake her head slowly as if you are the kind of idiot whose genes are destined to be extinguished in Darwinian style.)
Lacha Somtum's duck larb.
Then there is the minced-meat salad called larb, which with its hefty flavor profile of chili, citrus, and onion is as much an essential Thai dish as any papaya salad. Like som tum, creating larb involves pounding spices — pok pok — to accentuate flavor. Lacha Somtum’s larb of ground duck meat is especially awesome; if the restaurant served nothing else, it would still be a restaurant worth braving this city’s traffic for.
Isaan Station is located not in Thai Town but Koreatown, on one of L.A.’s great streets where you can find a Salvadorean papusa and taco on one corner and charcoal-grilled Korean meats on another. The space has a sort of hip flair, with crappy Thai music videos constantly blaring from a glamorous television, couches spray painted silver, and walls eccentrically colored with haphazard strokes. This is presumably an attempt to attract the area’s late night scene, and the food fits: fried sausages, grilled meats, and sour salads are all basically designed to meet the drunkard's palate. The restaurant confusingly has no liquor license, which is an issue, but most nights people have pre-gamed their visit to Isaan Station anyway.
Isaan is especially proud of its sausage, sai krok Isaan, which is different from the popular one found in Northern Thailand. The rice involved is fermented beforehand, giving it the sense of funk that permeates the cuisine. Attach a wad of sticky rice to a slice – food in Northern Thailand and Isaan absolutely requires sticky rice – and place the accompanying ginger, chili, and peanut on top. Drizzle some sauce over the construction. Bite into it. Consider moving closer to Koreatown.
Some people go to Isaan Station just to eat a grilled chicken. The art of grilling and roasting chicken is a worldwide phenomenon, with various cultures vying as the standard-bearer. Jeffrey Steingarten of Vogue once devoted an entire column to the cause by trying to re-create what he saw as the perfect roasted chicken he had found in Italy. Peru’s moist pollo a la brasa is considered by some to be the ideal version.
But Isaan’s gai yang – a whole chicken marinated in turmeric and coriander, charcoal grilled, and served with a sweet chili sauce – could very well be mankind’s ultimate achievement in its long, carnivorous history with the animal. The version at Isaan Station is stunningly good: succulent and tender, crispy and charred at the edges, laced with hints of ginger and garlic and salt. If there’s such a thing as a perfect grilled bird, gai yang has at least come very close to matching it.
Isaan Station's gai yang, or charcoal grilled chicken.
Other people go to Isaan Station just to eat grilled pork neck. As wonderful as this meat is — fatty and smoky, with tenderness that rivals the chicken — the kohr moo yang here is perhaps not on the level of extreme excellence reached by Kris Yenbamroong's version at Night+Market, which Yenbamroong aptly calls pork toro. You will get more of it here, though, chopped in such a way that it could be a pork dish at one of Asheville's Carolina 'cue joints. No vinegar slaw or mac n' cheese sides here, but sticky rice should be adequate.
Cap your Isaan meal with the cleansing soup called tom saab. Isaan’s soups and curries can seem downright medicinal at times, the kind of thing that’s spicy and herbal enough to make an instant cure for headache, fever, or hangover. Each spoonful is like getting punched in the tongue with kaffir lime leaves, chile and parsley. At Isaan Station, the concoction arrives in a metal device designed to keep it steaming, as is typical of the region, and is served with lusciously tender spare ribs that jump from the bone.
It should be mentioned that both Lacha Somtum and Isaan Station are admittedly a bit tame when it comes to their Isaan menus. Yenbamroong at Night+Market has managed to run such a successful restaurant that he serves his gai yang dip with water bugs and also offers a kind of Northern Thai pig’s blood soup on his daily menu (the blood is cooked, though, which is not always the case in Isaan or Northern Thailand).
Isaan Station and Lacha Somtum don’t have the luxury of that success, and it’s reasonable that they’ve made the decision to avoid serving a bowl filled with pig’s blood to the customers they do have. What this does mean, presumably, is that if you go to these restaurants and get them crowded and their chefs famous, then we can finally get some reasonably priced blood soup in this city. Or perhaps sour red-ant eggs, rice-field beetles, and a grilled gecko or two.
Welcome to the Pok Pok Revolution.
Lacha Somtum, 5171 Hollywood Blvd,Los Angeles, CA 90027, Los Feliz; (323) 486-7380.
Isaan Station Thai Street Food, Koreatown, 125 N Western Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90004; (323) 380-5126. Cash only.
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