Chai Thung: Isaan Also Rises
It’s almost mind-bending, a good nam kaow tod, the rustic Thai salad of deep-fried rice grains and wetly pink Thai “spam,” citrus and slivered herbs, a kaleidoscopic whirl of crunchiness and chewiness, sweetness and animal pungency, three kinds of tart astringency and three kinds of chile heat — and it comes with fried peanuts, too. As regional Thai restaurants become more common in Los Angeles and the local palate becomes used to the wilder flavors of the cuisine, nam kaow tod, a specialty of the rural northeastern Isaan region of Thailand, is becoming what pad Thai and basil chicken were to the first wave of enthusiasts, the dish by which a Thai restaurant may be measured.
I’ve eaten a lot of nam kaow tod lately, at Lum-Ka-Naad in Reseda and at Renu Nakorn in Norwalk, at restaurants in Van Nuys and Bellflower, at Khun Dom in Hollywood and at Lotus of Siam in a mini-mall a mile off the Las Vegas Strip. I liked all of them — even bad nam kaow tod is usually pretty good, although the manufacture of that house-made Thai sausage, traditionally soured in a warm room for precisely three days, does require a bit of vigilance. But the best nam kaow tod I’ve had in years was at one of the last places you might have expected it, a mini-mall restaurant well outside the usual Thai Town orbit, and possibly best known for its liberal delivery policies.
Chai Thung does not appear to be the most robustly capitalized of Thai restaurants. It shares an entrance with a Filipino bakery in a small complex just north of Los Angeles City College, on the ground floor of what was built as a nouvelle-cuisine restaurant in the mid-1980s — the logo of that restaurant, the Betsy, is still etched in Harold Robbins–paperback script on the windows. The restaurant itself has no sign, minimal décor and no alcohol license. If you care about those things, the window boasts a Health Department C, although the county database lists the adjacent bakery and not the restaurant as the common address, which may or may not mean that Chai Thung merits a higher score.
On any given afternoon, half the customers seem to be Thai expats ordering exotic Isaan dishes, and the other half are LACC students happy with $4.95 lunch specials that include egg rolls, soup and egg fried rice. Evenings, there is often Thai karaoke, a phenomenon horrifying enough to make Thai Elvis seem like, well, Elvis. If you show up at the right time in the afternoons, you can watch Thai cooking shows on the flat-screen TV.
If not for the screaming yellow banner that reads “E-San,” you could walk by Chai Thung a thousand times on the way from your creative-writing class to the Metro station without breaking stride, not suspecting the presence of polished chicken larb, house-made sai oua, fermented bamboo-shoot salad, or what may be the best Thai beef-intestine soup in the greater Los Angeles area.
I first heard of Chai Thung last spring, when my former colleague Barbara Hansen wrote about it on her blog, Table Conversation (www.tableconversation.com), identifying it as a new restaurant from the former chef of Yai, one of the best of the Hollywood Thai restaurants to open in the 1980s. I had always thought Yai served something like straight-ahead Thai-Chinese cooking: I was partial to its version of the Cantonese-style mixed-barbecue dish called cha po, and to a heroically stinky dish of Chinese broccoli with salted fish. But Hansen identified the new place as an Isaan restaurant, specializing in the grilled meats, freshwater fish, sticky rice and fiery-hot salads of Thailand’s vast northeast, the country’s poorest region but also home to its most soulful cuisine. Hansen was perhaps the first journalist to explore the mosaic of immigrant cooking in Los Angeles — I used to write her fan letters at the L.A. Times when I was in college — and when she favors a restaurant that doesn’t happen to be in Singapore, Kerala or Peru, it is as solid a recommendation as they come.
If you are nostalgic for the days when the best Thai restaurants tended to have long, untranslated rosters of the food you knew you should be eating instead of chicken satay and angel wings, Chai Thung will make you feel right at home, right down to the reluctance of the waitresses to translate the menu boards. The English menu features wonton soup and that funny dish with shrimp and baby corn, while the blackboard and the Thai-language table card are where you find things like fried quail, green-papaya salad with salt-preserved crab, and the incredible fermented bamboo-shoot salad — sliced into slivers that look as if they’d come through a paper shredder, tossed with chile, lime and ground toasted sticky rice, and arriving in a glorious, odiferous heap, a vegetable as stinky as ripe Époisses.
The grilled sour Isaan sausage is on the regular menu; the spicier sai oua, from northern Thailand, juicier and crumblier than you may remember it from places like Renu Nakorn and Lum-Ka-Naad, is not. Smoky grilled-eggplant salad is on the menu, tossed with ground pork and herbs; crunchy fried-eggplant salad is scrawled on the board. I have heard rumors of wild-boar dishes, delicious preparations of venison and succulent pork ribs, but I have never managed to summon them to the table, although I did bag an off-menu garlicky fried frog the last time through. Even the great nam kaow tod, which seems to be on the tables of at least two-thirds of the Thai customers, is unlisted. And the menu itself is speckled with traps — if you order fried wonton, Thai chicken salad or shrimp fried rice with pineapple instead of the steamed trout with herbs in a lemongrass broth, you may not find the restaurant any better than your local corner pad Thai joint.
But there is a murky, deeply flavored beef-tendon soup, spiced like a more complex version of the clove-intensive boat noodles at Sapp and shot through with chunks of soft, stewed cattle sinew; and a great version of deep-fried Thai beef jerky served with a roast-chile dip that resembles a northern nam prik oom. Isaan is known for its barbecue: spice-tinged grilled chicken, beef and pork. Salty, fat-spurting slabs of grilled sirloin are called nam tok, or “waterfall” beef, because of their tendency to weep juices on the grill. Chai Thung does barbecue pretty well too, although the dryish chicken may not actually transport you to hot nights in Si Saket.
The pla lui saun, a profoundly delicious dish of fish stripped of its spine, turned inside out and fried to a golden block of pure crunch, buried under a mound of Thai herbs, drizzled with hot, sweet sauce, may be the single best thing on the menu. As you eat, the bones crackle under your teeth, the cool fragrance of the cilantro and the threads of kaffir lime leaf spark the salty oiliness of the fish, and a top note of gingered sweetness weaves through the composition like a silvery trumpet line: spectacular.
The chef’s famous dish of Chinese broccoli and deep-fried belly pork used to be my automatic order at Yai. In six visits to Chai Thung, I still haven’t gotten around to trying it.
Chai Thung, 1001 N. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 667-3432. No alcohol. Takeout and delivery. Lot parking. Cash only. Recommended dishes: nam kaow tod; Thai beef jerky; Isaan sausage; sai oua; fried fish with Thai herb salad (pla lui saun); bamboo-shoot salad; steamed trout; nam tok; beef-tendon soup.
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