Ping-Pong Balls and Thai Tacos
Everybody likes mint-leaf chicken. In some parts of town, pad Thai noodles are more popular than hot dogs. But to people not actually raised in Bangkok, Thai desserts may be as specialized a taste as oboe recitals or light bondage, gelatinous masses slicked with bland fresh coconut cream and lashed with stinging doses of salt, inflected with the reptilian stinks of jackfruit or ripe durian, or garnished with any number of flavorful crispies - fried onions, hot chiles, dried shrimp - that you will never find on top of a Baskin-Robbins sundae. The most famous Thai dessert (or at least my favorite) involves great lumps of sticky, black rice, a mango ripened almost to the point of deliquescence, and enough salted coconut milk to clog the arteries of a Finnish marathon runner. When you like Thai desserts, nothing else will do.
In the midst of the densest Thai-restaurant neighborhood in America, next door to Sapp Coffee Shop, across the street from Sanamluang, a block's walk from Vim, Krangtedd, Ruen Pair and a dozen other places, Kamon may be the epicenter of Thai desserts in Hollywood, a Thai equivalent of Standard Sweets in Artesia or the cannoli joints on New York's Mulberry Street, a place to stop for a jolt of caffeine and a bite of something sweet after a big ethnic supper.
There are fried bananas to nibble with your Thai tea, of course, translucent gelatins the color of milky jade, warm peanuts boiled with spices, and tiny, exquisitely colored jelly fruits realistic enough to make a marzipan master sigh. You will find peculiar multicolored ropes, dried fruit with sugar-salt, vast expanses of sugared squid, and delicious Thai sticky-rice tamales filled with thick, sweet mashed taro, coconut and red beans.
A lot of Thai restaurants may make an off-menu takeout snack or two, some homemade sweets and garnished rice noodles stacked next to the cash register. The backroom of Kamon is practically a library of these indie snacks, Technicolor jellies and salty beef, coconut blobs and taro crispies, rice cakes, mango jerky and powdered shrimp, all tightly Saran Wrapped and glistening in individual Styrofoam coffins.
But the real action is behind the long glassed-in counter, where half a dozen young women grill coconut pastries on hot iron, pop fritters into roiling seas of grease, roll warm crepes into pastries as deftly as Martha Argerich plays Chopin. For a buck or two, you can taste these etudes in coconut, sugar and wheat. Ping-Pong balls of fried dough, piled high in stainless-steel bins, are chewy, oily, unsweetened Thai doughnut holes ready to be dunked in chile-heightened syrup. Tiny fried dumplings conceal thimble-size portions of ground nuts and honey. Delicious hemispheres of slightly jellied coconut cream nestled in wisps of pastry - knomkuk, they're called, I think - are displayed pressed together in pairs, batter flaring at the edges to make them resemble ringed planets.
The English legend on the restaurant's sign reads, "Thai Dessert & Vegetarian Food," although the actual selection of non-dessert stuff here is severely limited, and the senior woman behind the counter may actually yell at you when you try to negotiate a bowl of noodles.
"No food!" she often barks. "Go next door."
But if you persist, she may point out a few savory items. There are not especially vegetarian chicken pies called curry pups, a sort of Thai equivalent of Cornish pasties: golden-hued baked capsules shaped like computer mice, crisp as puff pastry, stuffed with a gently curried mash of chicken and tropical roots. And there are suave, floppy-skinned dumplings, 10 or so to an order, sprinkled with toasted garlic and filled with diced radish, sauteed Thai greens, or a mysterious hamburger-textured substance that appears to be based on ground taro.
But in the end, it's always dessert. "Here," the counterlady said on one of my visits, feeling generous. "Have a Thai taco," and she handed over a tiny, crisp Thai crepe that looked like something Malibu Barbie might enjoy with a strawberry margarita, glazed with a quarter-inch layer of thickened coconut milk, folded in half, seasoned with cilantro and chile, and stuffed with deep-orange Brillo-pad tangles of carrot . . . fantastic.
A Thai taco may not have the stage presence of a creme brulee or a slice of ricotta cheesecake with fresh mulberries, but after a Hollywood meal of Thai food, it seems just right.
5185 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood; (323) 667-2055. Open daily 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Lunch for two, food only, about $7. No alcohol. Takeout. Lot parking. Cash only. Recommended dishes: Thai "tacos"; knomkuk; vegetarian dumplings.
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