Siam Sunset: The Thaiest Thai in Thai Town
View more photos in Anne Fishbein's "Siam Sunset: The Thaiest Thai Food in Thaitown" slideshow.
It is one of the paradoxes of Siam Sunset that while it resembles any run-down motel coffee shop in Arizona, it may also be the most Thai of any restaurant in Thai Hollywood, with televisions set to Thai newscasts when they aren't flashing Terminator 2 at 6:30 a.m.; a photograph of the King flanked by crowd shots of Bangkok Yellow Shirt rallies; empty spaces taken up with concert flyers, posters of smiling monks and offers of discount calls to Thailand. If you look out the window, you are clearly in East Hollywood, where earnest teenagers gather street litter on weekend mornings, and the Armenian mall across the street has begun to take on life, but inside the café elderly couples wince at the strength of the coffee, strong-smelling bowls of noodle soup are emptied, and everywhere, hot Chinese crullers swish through saucers of sticky, condensed milk. If not for the twin clocks on the wall set to Los Angeles and Bangkok times, you could be in any of a thousand breakfast places in Southeast Asia, eating curry and noodles and rice-enriched soups before the heat grows oppressive.
The strength of Siam Sunset may lie in its ordinariness, the way that its meals are structured to glide into routine rather than to dazzle with the virtuosity of its kitchen. If you were in Bangkok, this would be the café around the corner from your apartment, the place where you would be happy to meet friends for noodles or a plate of fried leek cakes rather than a restaurant you'd hop in a taxi to find.
Siam Sunset commands perhaps the least promising location in Hollywood, a tiny, L-shaped diner attached to an America's Best Value Inn, which looks like the kind of place the fugitives might shack up in toward the end of a Coen brothers flick. I had been there years before, when it was the original home of the famous boat-noodle parlor Sapp Coffee Shop — most of the original yellow sign is still above the Sunset Boulevard façade — but it wouldn't have occurred to me to visit the restaurant if a Thai student I ran into at Art Center hadn't suddenly become wistful about the breakfasts, the way an American expat might about the one passable waffle house in Montevideo. When a passing reference to a restaurant provokes pure longing and desire, even the rawest chowhound knows that he has just discovered something good.
There is a raw, totally unevolved version of yen ta fo, thick noodles with fried tofu and various tentacles floating in Barbie-box-pink broth, but the rank-smelling liquid turns out to be about 100-percent umami, and the scent fits precisely into the fabric of an Asian morning. A lot of people come in for the Thai take on Hainan chicken rice, strips of breast or thigh poached just until the slackness of the flesh starts to tighten and the juice turns clear, served on a mound of rice moistened with chicken fat. If you are accustomed to the Singapore version of the dish, in which the grains of rice are separate, firm, barely glistening with oil, Siam Sunset's mushy, garlicky rice may not be what gets you up in the morning (and the gingery, bean-sweetened, sauce may even freak you out), but it is good enough, a basic, homely Hainan rice. The braised pork leg over rice is rich, fine.
Pasted onto the front cover of the menu, a smeary photocopy lists $3.95 specials, and many of the dishes are among the best food in the house, especially the soft rice "spaghetti'' with spicy green curry; the gooey leek-stuffed, fried rice cakes; and a kind of rolled noodle served with ong choi, a deeply flavored braise of ground pork and dried mushrooms, and a sprinkling of crisp minced Chinese sausage that could be the Bac-O- Bits from Valhalla.
Almost everybody drinks the hot coffee here, but it tastes a lot like instant, not that you'd notice after you'd mixed in a spoonful or two of condensed milk. The most popular dish in the morning is probably the jok, thick, white rice pap you can order with roast duck, soured pork meatballs or thin filets of fish that cook in the heat of the porridge. But before you swirl in the juices, the slivered ginger and a lashing of white pepper, the jok is blander than unseasoned oatmeal. Jok soothes, it nourishes, it is a blank surface on which flavors are incised. Is Siam Sunset's jok the best in town because it is the thickest, the plainest, the most accommodating? In an odd way, it may be.
Siam Sunset: 5265 W. Sunset Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 467-8935. Open daily, 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Cash only. No alcohol. Street parking only. Breakfast for two, food only, $8-$16. Recommended dishes: porridge with roast duck, Chinese doughnuts, rolled noodles, "spaghetti'' with green curry.
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