A mile south of the more glamorous precincts of North Hollywood’s Thaitown, in a mini-mall populated by tattooed young men with shaved heads and 16-inch biceps, Sri Siam may be one of the least promising restaurants on the planet — a dingy storefront that looks every one of its 23 years. The menu is dense with banal stir fries and curries. You have to bring in your own beer. A gooey, oversweet version of pad thai tastes like something Thai Airways might serve economy-class passengers 30,000 feet above Guam while the swells up in business class enjoy banana-size prawns. It would be easy to walk into Sri Siam, order hot-and-sour soup, pad see eew and broccoli beef and conclude that it was no different from any ordinary Thai restaurant in the Valley.
But connoisseurs of Thai cooking have always revered Sri Siam, which served dishes from northern and northeastern Thailand at a time when regional Thai cooking was all but unknown in Los Angeles, and where it was possible for non-Thais to order, say, green-papaya salad or boat noodles amped up to Bangkok levels of spiciness without having to grovel for more than a minute or two. Also, the golden, crunchy fried trout served with spicy slivered-apple salad is legendary. (The chef does make extensive use of the Granny Smith salad, which appears as the basis of a grilled-beef salad, a crisp ground-catfish salad, and with the duck larb, among other things.) The Isaan-style dishes — larb, grilled-eggplant salad — tend to be a little muddier-tasting, less defined, than their equivalents across town at Renu Nakorn.
It does take a little work to unlock the secrets of the long menu, which is a sketchy document at best. Most of the northern dishes are tucked away in the untranslated photo menu at the back of the regular menu, which means that you kind of have to recognize the appearance of nam prik oom, a smoky, delicious dip of pounded roast green chiles served with sliced cucumbers and carrots as well as a stack of freshly fried pork rinds — and you won’t know that you can get the same dish studded with shrimp unless you read Thai or a waitress happens to tell you. The spicy, gravylike house version of khao soi, a coconut-tempered northern egg-noodle soup you season yourself with dense chile paste, handfuls of pickles and slivered onions, appears on the document as an undifferentiated pink blob.
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Listed on the menu as o-lou, pronounced something like oh-lu-ah, and found in none of the Thai cookbooks on my shelf, is a sort of crunchy, fried rice-batter pancake stuffed with shrimp and layered over a bed of sautéed bean sprouts — the effect is rather like the Vietnamese rice-flour pancake banh xeo, especially when you drizzle a bit of the sriracha-style chile sauce over the top. O-lou is a wonderful dish. There is also a decent rendition of the northern salad nam kao tod, a dish made with toasted rice, fried peanuts, herbs and cubes of raw-pork sausage — Thai Spam! — tossed with chile and a bit of lime. Steamed curry cup is the house equivalent of har mok, bits of seafood suspended in a luscious, savory coconut custard. And I loved the one southern Thai dish I could find: koa yum, a superfunky salad of rice, shredded lemongrass, toasted coconut, slivered Chinese long bean and pungent dried shrimp, which you douse with a sauce of vinegar and palm sugar and mix together to taste.
There are all manners of Thai dessert, from obscure mung-bean concoctions to coconut puddings to mango with sticky rice. You will eat store-bought ice cream from paper pill cups. And you will like it.
Sri Siam is not only the kind of café that shows hourlong Thai political monologues on its corner-mounted television, it is a café whose customers actually pay attention to the speeches. The current prime minister is corrupt. Pass it on.?
Sri Siam, 12843 Vanowen St., North Hollywood; (818) 982-6262. Open daily 11 a.m.–10 p.m. No alcohol. Takeout and delivery. Lot parking. MC, V. $5.95 lunch specials. Dinner for two, food only, $14–$28. Recommended dishes: o-lou; crispy rice salad; green-chile dip; steam curry cup; khao soi.