As Thai restaurants go, In-Chan seems specifically engineered to be overlooked. It's located about three miles west of North Hollywood's Thai Town, hidden inside a narrow Van Nuys strip mall whose staggering multicultural selection of restaurants is overshadowed only by the sadistically cramped layout of its parking lot.
Even if you somehow arrived here with an appetite dead set on a plate of Panang curry — and not tonkotsu ramen, or Armenian lule kebab, or Nigerian goat stew with fufu, or boba and bun thit nuong from a bizarre little shop called iPho (Apple lawsuit pending) — there's still a good chance that you would end up at the strip mall's other Thai restaurant, a sleek, dimly lit space playing smooth jazz and specializing in things like grilled salmon with mango salsa, lychee martinis and something called the "Sexy Shrimp Salad."
If you were to make it beyond all that, it still would be very easy to walk into In-Chan, order pineapple fried rice, pad see ew and chicken satay and happily conclude that it was no different from any other Thai restaurant in the Valley. Unless you were a regular — or chose to address your waiter in fluent Thai — until you asked for it specifically, you probably wouldn't be offered the small, supplemental menu of about 15 dishes hailing from the city of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.
I first experienced this side of In-Chan during a visit with my friend Javier Cabral, who had heard about the "secret menu" after pressing the owner of a Thai restaurant in Alhambra for his favorite spot for Isaan-style food. It was a simple place — the walls, painted a glowing orange, were covered in travel posters and portraits of Thai presidents, and the half-dozen tables lining the walls were of the black plastic IKEA variety.
Chef and owner Sanan Intasen, a serious-looking, white-haired man with round spectacles, was once a founding partner at Spicy BBQ in East Hollywood, one of the city's old meccas for the throat-searing, mouth-puckering style of northern Thai cooking. After leaving Spicy BBQ almost a decade ago, his family opened Sweet Lemongrass, a well-liked restaurant in North Hollywood named for its hyper-sweetened iced tea brewed from thick stalks of lemongrass, but probably best known among the Thai community for its smoky, house-made sausages stuffed with herbs and then fermented for several days.
Intasen's children now help him run In-Chan, while he and his wife operate the kitchen in the back. The family has developed a following among the Valley's sprawling Thai community, and even been featured on several Thai-language TV programs, all while serving up the occasional pad thai delivery order or bargain-priced orange chicken special to office workers on their lunch breaks.
If you frequented Spicy BBQ, you probably would find many familiar things here: the khao soi, the distinctive spicy chicken soup with yellow egg noodles, smoothed out with coconut milk until it has the texture of velvet, garnished with crispy fried egg noodles and served with diced red onion, crunchy pickled greens and a fat slice of fresh lime. You might also be pointed to the gaeng hung lay, a deep red curry sweetened with palm sugar and stocked with chunks of fat-streaked pork belly, or the spicy jackfruit, a sauteed heap of the starchy tropical delicacy, shot through with funky shrimp paste and bombastic amounts of garlic. It doesn't take much to ascertain that the menus from both Spicy BBQ and In-Chan, in certain sections, are essentially identical. It's possible that some of the blue floral pattern flatware might have even journeyed up the Hollywood freeway at some point to a new home. Or maybe they just shop at the same restaurant-supply store.
The main difference between the two might be that, compared with Spicy BBQ, In-Chan seems less concerned with pumping out raw units of heat. That's not to say the dishes don't pack a punch (beware the tiny but explosive bird's eye chilies, sliced no bigger than the tip of your pinky), but the prevalence of sharp galangal ginger, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves is definitely more noticeable in In-Chan's kitchen. "Sometimes they make things so spicy over [at Spicy BBQ], you can't taste anything else," Intasen's son Nick once told me.
You get the feeling there are the foundations for a proper rivalry are here, not exactly one of Lakers-Celtics magnitude, perhaps something like a Thai version of Cole's versus Philippe's.
But there's plenty of room for both restaurants. How could you possibly object to another purveyor of blackened discs of juicy ground pork seasoned with minced herbs and chile and buried under a pile of fried mint leaves, or of the ground-pork larb salad — made with crumbled hard-cooked meat marinated in a bath of lime juice, garlic and black pepper? At In-Chan, there is also some of that infamous dip known as nam prik noom, a mortar-and-pestle-pounded green paste concocted from charred serrano peppers, which wallops the palate in a violent bear hug of lingering heat. Its slightly less intense cousin, nam prik ong, resembles a thick, oily Bolognese sauce made from minced pork, crushed tomato, fish sauce and lashings of Thai chile. You can eat it with crunchy wedges of cabbage or diced cucumber, or, preferably, with the massive, twisted squares of house-fried pork rind. What could be better to scoop up your pork dip than more pork?
A dish of fried catfish arrives looking like Baltimore lake trout, skin on and speckled with bones, with a bowl of sweet Thai chili sauce for dipping. It's a bit overcooked and rather bland, but according to tradition is meant to pair well with kaeng som, a sour curry popular in central Thailand that has been tweaked for northern tastes. The broth gets a puckering punch from tamarind pods and pickled ginger — the smell alone would probably revive a knocked-out prizefighter — and floating inside are miniature, pale-green omelettes made from fried cha-om leaves, which look eerily similar to what Charlton Heston spotted on the conveyor belt in Soylent Green. It's odd, potent and not like many other things I've tasted, but also strangely mesmerizing on a brisk fall day.
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There is also something here that Spicy BBQ lacks, along with all the other great northern Thai places in town: a rather inventive version of the Thai stuffed chicken wing, which usually is packed with a mixture of glass noodles and ground chicken. Here, instead, it is stuffed with the sour sausage In-Chan is rightly famous for, sai oua, and then chicken-fried until its breaded exterior is as crispy as the crunchy prawns they give you as appetizers at old-school Chinese restaurants. It's sort of a meat Inception, with an outer layer of juicy chicken giving way to funky, herb-flecked pork underneath.
Like many of the things In-Chan does well, the deeper you dig, the richer the flavors become.
IN-CHAN | 15333 Sherman Way, Ste. B, Van Nuys | (818) 781-1234 | inchanthaicuisine.com | Tues.-Sun., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. | Entrees, $5.99- $12.99 | No alcohol | Lot parking