Photo by Anne FishbeinKrua Thai rocks on a Saturday evening, a mini-mall noodle shop on North Hollywood’s Thai strip, washed with blaring music, illuminated with glowing neon rings, fluorescent bulbs and the glare from backlit photographs of menu items behind the takeout counter: an unearthly glow of fried fish cakes and wet-noodle salads and glistening brown things you will never figure out how to order. Armenian families crowd into the restaurant, Mexican families feast on cheap seafood, Thai families and teenagers and groups of neatly dressed elders plow through platters of clams fried with basil and bright chiles, vast bowls of Barbie-box-pink yen-ta-fo noodles, big plates of roast-duck larb, spicy crab-fried rice, or trout steamed with kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass. Toward the end of a Krua Thai meal, the Formica tables sag under the weight of shrimp shells, oily lettuce scraps, pomfret bones, discarded satay skewers, spilled saucers of fish sauce, and bowls of noodles reduced to splashes of broth and a few gnawed bits of cartilage.
Like any respectable Thai joint in this part of Los Angeles, the restaurant features a sign outside boasting of the Best Noodles in Town, but unlike the rest of them, Krua Thai has a pretty fair title to the claim. In a city where great Thai noodle shops are all that keep some of us going some days, when the anguish of a quarterly tax payment or a sick cat or yet another Laker collapse in the last 30 seconds of overtime can be eased, at least a little, by the knowledge of the boat noodles at Sapp or Sanamluang or Rodded if you’re of a mind to hop in the car, Krua Thai’s pad Thai and pad kee mao and rad na and pad see ew may be the very best of all.
In the mid-’70s, when we were all discovering Thai food, pad Thai was tasty, even thrilling, stiff bundles of rice pasta slicked with orange oil, oversweetened with palm sugar, tossed with a few shrimp, sprinkled with dusty ground peanuts and plopped on top of a mass of bean sprouts. But the ultraspicy, tamarind-soured, fish-sauce-laced house-special version at Krua Thai is about as good as it gets, a powerful dish, truly exotic, sweet and squiggly and delicious, stocked with both tofu and big shrimp — the dish made vivid again after 30 years as a cliché.
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The pad kee mao is pretty definitive here too, wide, supple rice noodles that slide around your mouth as if they’re actually alive, stir-fried with hot green chiles and Thai basil and a gritty, garlicky mass of ground chicken (if you order it with chicken, which you should), and a sharp, sweet flavor note as defined as a diminished ninth played on the harpsichord. The boat noodles, floating in a tar-black broth, are mined with beef balls and chewy strips of tripe and brisket and superpungent liver, so that you never know just what combination is going to combine in any given bite, and you end up playing a lady-or-the-tiger game with yourself that continues on to the bottom of the bowl. The pad see ew, flat rice noodles fried hard with soy sauce, eggs and shrimp, appear as a single carmelized clump that you tease apart with fork and spoon.
Krua Thai even manages to put out good versions of noodle dishes that I had always thought were specific to other local restaurants: pale, fat ribbons with roasted duck in a dark, spicy broth to rival Rodded’s; and even General’s noodle soup, a clear broth clotted with shrimp, barbecued pork, and duck, which is a specialty of the Hollywood noodle shop Sanamluang Café, where a reputed Thai general used to direct traffic in the parking lot on weekends.
Later — the restaurant is open nearly until dawn — there will be karaoke in a backroom, oceans of litchi slush and boba drinks, and an endless procession of drinking food such as crusty deep-fried sausage with peanuts, sizzling slabs of beef jerky and skewers of chicken satay, although Krua Thai serves no beverage stronger than iced coffee. In its way, Krua Thai could be the Thai equivalent of a delicatessen like Canter’s: cheerful, fast, popular across ethnic lines, open after the clubs close, true to itself above all.
Krua Thai, 13130 Sherman Way, North Hollywood; (818) 759-7998. Open daily 11 a.m.–3:30 a.m. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $12–$24. No alcohol. Takeout. Lot parking. All major credit cards accepted. Recommended dishes: fried shrimp cake, roasted-duck salad, pad kee mao. Also at 935 S. Glendora Ave., West Covina; (626) 480-0116.