If you have ever poked your head into a restaurant serving northern Thai cooking, you have probably encountered nam prik oom, a slippery mash made from roasted hot chiles pounded in a mortar, a black-flecked green substance customarily scooped up with a pinch of sticky rice formed into a crude ball. Nam prik oom, made properly, is innocuous stuff that waits a few discreet moments to take over your body; a hint of salt, a bit of vegetable sweetness, a smoky undertone, and then, wham, your chest clenches and your throat begins to throb, and you wish profoundly that you had thought to make your pinch of rice the size of a grapefruit. It is also fun to say — nam prik oom, nam prik oom — possibly because it sounds vaguely salacious, like a bit of salty dialogue misheard in a Korean gangster flick. If you really want to get down with your nam prik oom, you can also scoop it up with a cucumber slice or a scrap of cabbage, even with a bit of fried pigskin if you’ve gone to the right place.
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Nam prik oom — as much fun to say as it is to eat
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Thai penicillin: Khao soi, the emblematic Thai chicken noodle dish
At Spicy BBQ, a northern Thai restaurant in Little Armenia, nam prik oom is bountiful. It feeds multitudes.
Spicy BBQ is in one of those classic East Hollywood malls, next to the best falafel joint in town, a couple of doors down from an Armenian ophthalmologist, and directly underneath an insurance office that turns into a Salvadoran Pentecostal church at night — the jangly guitar-pop wailings can sound eerily like a Spanish-language Shaggs record directed toward God. Even by the standards of mini-mall restaurants, Spicy BBQ is unusually small, just five or six tables in a cramped dining room, a chair piled with Thai weeklies, a V-shaped wooden ornament on the wall. If the waitress expands your table with a vacant two-top, sometimes necessitated by the enormous size of the portions here, you will inevitably feel guilty when unseated couples stare longingly at the food-laden slab.
The service is slow but loving — you will wait several minutes for a glass of lemonade, but the drink will be freshly made and your straw wrapper will have been sculpted into a Corinthian column or a rose.
Chef-owner Nong Sriyana periodically peeks into the dining room, dressed in black, thick gold chain around her neck, her hair swept back with what resembles a tiara attached to a black-satin snood; she looks more like a customer at an elegant restaurant than a chef in the middle of service. (Her sister runs Top Thai in Reseda, the other well-known northern-Thai restaurant in town.)
Nong prepares what is probably the definitive version of khao soi in Los Angeles, the emblematic northern-Thai dish of egg noodles in a dense, spicy chicken-coconut broth, garnished with a big handful of delicately fried egg noodles, served with diced red onions and crunchy homemade pickles that the waitress will insist you mix into the bowl. You may be warned away from the other northern-style noodle dish, a plate of garlic-sprinkled rice noodles served with a delicious, herb-intensive pottage of ground pork, spare ribs and little cubes of blood, but the taste is less fearsome than the appearance.
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The photo-illustrated menu (head straight to the back for the list of northern dishes) will point you toward a sweetish pork curry influenced by Burmese cooking; a thin, wild-tasting vegetable curry; or a funky, steaming alp of jackfruit sautéed with pork, aromatics and chiles, a dish that sometimes approaches the ripe pungency of runny French cheese.
Most of the people in the restaurant will probably have pork patties on their tables, and you should get some too: light, crisp ovals of ground pork seasoned with minced herbs and buried under a drift of deep-fried mint leaves. And the ground-pork salad — crumbled meat fried hard with lots of garlic and black pepper — is spectacular.
Is there pork dip? There is pork dip, a red slurry heightened with fish sauce and a bit of chile heat. But mostly, there is the nam prik oom, glowering from its bowl. A few spoonfuls are powerful enough to transform two quarts of chicken soup, should there be any leftovers to take home, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it had secondary uses as a healing balm or a cure for nagging sinus infections. A substance like this seems far too powerful to only have been experienced as food.
Spicy BBQ, 5101 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd., (323) 663-4211. Thurs.-Tues. 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; closed Wednesdays. No alcohol. Takeout. Cash only. Inexpensive lunch specials. Dinner for two, food only, $14-$24. Recommended dishes: nam prik oom; khao soi; ground pork patties.