Lost in Translation
Photo by Anne Fishbein
Here we are back in Thaitown, that stubby, narrow stretch of East Hollywood that sports the highest concentration of Thai businesses in the Americas. And here we are again in a cramped Thaitown mini-mall, this one anchored by a legitimate Thai massage parlor popular with Val Kilmer, a Thai restaurant popular with Central Americans, and a Thai crafts store whose specialties seem to include Harley-Davidson motorcycles hand-carved out of logs. There has not been an open parking space here since 1993.
Noodle Thai Town is one of those gray storefront cafés so common in this part of the city, a slender spot whose kitchen has crowded the dining room into near nonexistence: a tiny, elbow-to-elbow lunch counter and three bare tables that were probably the cheapest available at the restaurant-supply store. A big cleaver sings not quite far enough away from your ear, chopping vegetables, shaving translucent slivers from a bloody haunch of meat. The microwave dings. A platter of fried meatballs in -honeyed chile sauce goes by, then a bowl of noodles surmounted by glistening curls of squid and crumbles of ground pork frosting a big plate of rice. A glance at the glass door of the fridge tells you whether there is iced coffee, Thai tea or neither that day. The two women who own the place wear sensible shoes, mesh Mao caps and matching safety-orange aprons that make them look a little like crossing guards.
Noodle Thai Town feels as if it has been in this location for half a lifetime, although I seem to remember a short-lived takeout joint in the same position, and before that a dive called something like the Ping-Pong Café. The signature beef noodle soup, a murky, ferociously spicy broth guarding its payload of rice noodles and sliced liver like a flaming moat around a palace, is eternal.
Competition among restaurants is ferocious in Thaitown, where the best places compete for Thai-born customers who can be depended on to know exactly what should go into a bowl of boat noodles and what kind of peppercorn flatters chicken more than it does a bowl of shrimp. Thai cooking tastes different here than it does in Westwood or Pasadena: more focused, spicier and almost rank with fermented fish. There are dishes on most Thaitown menus that have never made it into any of the dozens of Thai restaurants in Encino. But even among Thaitown restaurants, Noodle Thai Town is unusual in its faithfulness to the Thai palate, in its cooks’ casual insistence on running the restaurant as if it were on a street corner in Bangkok. Its uncompromising range of flavors may be replicated in every street noodle cart in Thailand, but there is nothing quite like it in Los Angeles, and in half a dozen or so visits to the place, I have never seen another non-Thai customer.
At one end of the dining room, the menu is handwritten in Thai script on a whiteboard — a smudged area in a corner -featuring the day’s specials, the rest devoted to noodles and stir-fries. An abbreviated picture menu, its captions long ago faded by the sun, is mounted in the window outside. Exactly two copies of an English-language menu, which coincides with the whiteboard menu less thoroughly than one might wish, lie at one end of the counter, although entries like "broccoli with cicerones" (served with fried pork apparently, not with minced tour guide) and "noodles with ground beef" (the best version in Hollywood of the sweet, green-chile-fired stir-fried noodle dish pad kee mao) may seem less than completely enlightening. The women who run the restaurant are rarely much help when it comes to deciphering their own bill of fare, but they are incredibly well-meaning. When you ask about the composition of, say, khanom jiin nam prig, like as not you will just be brought a bowl of the noodles: squishy-soft rice squiggles topped with a peppery stir-fry of ground meat. (Khanom jiin nam ya pa is a plate of similar noodles served with slivered vegetables and a bowl of Malaysian-style pulverized-fish curry; khanom ka ti is the noodles fried with meat.) When you ask about a handwritten special, one of the cooks may shrug and send out a plate of Hainanese-style rice cooked with chicken fat and a little dish of tart chile sauce in which to dip the hacked pieces of steamed chicken that garnish the rice. When you ask about barbecued beef, she may smile, say "not today" and prepare a plate of unbelievably good barbecued pork instead. There are worse surprises in a restaurant.
Noodle Thai Town, 5136 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood; (323) 661-0260. Open daily 7 a.m.–8 p.m. Lunch for two, food only, $9–$11. No alcohol. Takeout. Difficult lot parking. Cash only. Recommended dishes: beef noodle soup; khanom jiin ka ti; barbecued pork.
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