If you're standing at the bus stop at 5th and Hope in downtown L.A. and you suddenly get the impression you're in Thailand, not waiting for the 720 to Santa Monica, you're not delusional.
Someone has just opened the door to Esaan, a Taste of Thai, allowing heady aromas of curry and tom yum, lemongrass and galangal to escape. Esaan opened just before Christmas, replacing Jack's Coney Island and its "world famous hot dogs & pastrami dip."
Inside, owner Nattha Quan, wearing an embroidered hill tribe apron, is putting together signature dishes such as the satay sandwich--chicken or beef with sweet and sour marinated cucumber and carrot strips, jalapeño slices, cilantro and peanut sauce on a baguette so fresh and tender you want to know where she got it (a Vietnamese bakery in the San Gabriel Valley).
If it's really cold, she might suggest yellow curry, which is Thai-spicy, or a steaming bowl of tom yum, made with chicken broth that has simmered for hours with Thai seasonings.
Or if it's warm you could have a pad Thai pasta salad, which combines such pad Thai garnishes as shredded carrot, red cabbage, bean sprouts and chopped peanuts with spaghetti and a toned-down Thai dressing.
Other light choices are a vermicelli salad, a market salad with Thai dressing, spring rolls, and veggies with Thai dipping sauce. Heartier dishes include a lemongrass grill with choice of meat, served with garlic rice.
Quan was born in Laos, then moved as a young child to Nong Khai in northeastern Thailand (Esaan). Later, her family settled in Montebello, and Quan went to hotel school at the University of Nevada, worked as a banquet manager with the Hyatt chain and as an event planner for Microsoft, so she knows how to run a food operation.
After a stint as a stay-at-home mom, she began to cater Thai food for friends, and that led to the restaurant.
The best food in Nong Khai is Vietnamese, Quan says, and so the Vietnamese sandwich bánh mì is on Esaan's menu, prepared her way, with lemongrass-marinated meat and chile-spiced mayo.
The food is fresh and light. Quan uses no oil. Meats are baked. Tofu is an option to meat and brown rice an alternative to steamed white rice. Along with Thai iced tea and coffee, there is lemongrass lemonade, garnished with a sliver of lemongrass and a mint leaf.
Esaa is open weekdays only, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The space is small but squeezes in a counter and three tables (notice the Buddha art sent from Thailand by Quan's sister). Seating outside on sunny days faces the area landmark, the Central Library.