Photos by Anne FishbeinThere may be more chaotic restaurants on a Saturday night, but the new Palms Thai is as loud as they come, a tall box of a dining room, the approximate shape and resonance of a speaker cabinet, lined with ranks of long, straight tables, packed shoulder-to-shoulder with Singha beer connoisseurs receding into the distance. The effect is that of an Army mess hall, except that the food on the tables runs to spicy green curries rather than SOS, the waitresses wear tight black T-shirts and the crowd is party-night Hollywood, plus the requisite Thai families and an ever-present contingent from the LAPD. Glowering Thai busts mounted high above the room may not add to the racket, but from a certain angle they can look as menacing as a biker’s cut-rate tattoo. The Palms is probably the most popular Thai nightclub in Hollywood, as was its mini-mall predecessor before it, which seemed as if it had been around forever. It always served a fair number of non-Thai customers, but a decade ago it was essentially two restaurants in a single room, one basically a fast-food cafe with a photo-illustrated menu of suburban favorites, the other a cosmopolitan Bangkok-style restaurant with a roster of exotic specialties listed on an untranslated leaflet. If you didn’t happen to read Thai, you had to talk a waiter into divulging the presence of the garlic-pepper frog, the steamed whole trout in broth or the venison curry flavored with kaffir lime leaves, galangal and extravagantly perfumed unripe peppercorns still clustered on the branch. Annotated copies of the Thai menu floated around food circles like subversive underground comics, and if you were lucky enough to latch onto one, it was your key to spicy game-hen soup, funky with the barnyard aroma of fermented bamboo shoots; cold chicken feet tossed with chile and lime; or the pungent, pale-pink Thai sausages made with cured raw pork and served with fried peanuts and slices of raw ginger. The ability to navigate the menu at Palms Thai earned some guys a kind of foodie street cred superior even to that bestowed on the fellows who knew their way around Chinatown. But Palms Thai became hip to their new customers at some point, gathered the previously unavailable dishes on their menu under the heading “Wild Things,” and became famous as the restaurant where you could get fried quail stewed down with chile and holy basil, a proper papaya salad with salt-preserved raw crabs, and the charred-beef dish suea rong hai, served with the dense Thai equivalent of Mexican chipotle salsa. The wait to get in on weekend evenings stretched as long as an hour. The previous clientele of Thai hipsters and tour-bus denizens from Bangkok moved on. The Chowhound.com dudes, of course, proclaimed that Palms Thai was over, and took their lust for stinky jungle curries and offal-laced noodles to dimmer, less accessible locales. I had a mediocre dish every so often, an insipid green curry or a leaden panang, but I never quite bought into the idea that Palms had gone downhill, that the intense, smoky edge of the dried-fish soup with straw mushrooms had been blunted for the carriage trade or that the pickled-pork fried rice had been rendered any tamer. (Thai pickled pork tastes pretty much like Spam in the best case.) When visiting food writers came to town, I tended to take them to Palms Thai to experience the vitality of Thai Hollywood. The new Palms, fitted into a recently built storage facility like a drawer into a lowboy chest, is the most exciting Thai restaurant in Hollywood since the L.A. Food Court opened its doors. And the food is as sharp as ever: fried cashews tossed with chile and scallion; minced fish fried into crunchy parabolic sheets that look like Rice Krispies Treats; a salad made with fried fish maws that exactly resemble Cheetos in appearance and texture; delicious chicken larb. Keening onstage at the front of the room on weekends is Kavee Thongprecha, the Thai Elvis, who reproduces every moan and hiccup of his idol at respectful but nonetheless ear-stretching volume. Thai Elvis and deep-fried fish maw? What more could you ask from a Saturday night? Palms Thai Restaurant, 5273 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 462-5073. Open daily, 11 a.m.–2 a.m. AE, MC, V. Beer and wine. Takeout. Valet parking in rear. Dinner for two, food only, $22-$36. Recommended dishes: pad kee mao, spicy dried fish soup, steamed whole trout, deer curry with green peppercorn.
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