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L.A. Restaurants

Captain Thai's Rare Esaan Curry: More Than Just Airplane Food

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Mon, May 9, 2011 at 11:30 AM

click to enlarge airline seating at Captain Thai - B. HANSEN
  • B. Hansen
  • airline seating at Captain Thai

Do a little digging, and you'll find that Captain Thai Restaurant in Hollywood offers something far more interesting than its much-talked-about airline décor. The airline look isn't that extensive anyway, just a photo of a vintage plane flying toward the Hollywood sign and a banquette that imitates airline seats. (What frequent flyer would want to spend more time in one of those?) The lunch specials ($5.95) come on a tray like airline meals (would any frequent flyer eat such stuff on the ground?)

Captain's food is quite decent, however. You'll find the usual parade of Thai hits, but nothing indicating that both cooks, one of whom is the owner, are from Nong Khai in Northeastern Thailand. This means genuine Esaan food lurks on the menu.

click to enlarge Esaan curry (gaeng aub) - B. HANSEN
  • B. Hansen
  • Esaan curry (gaeng aub)

Ask for what is called Esaan curry (gang aub), and the waitress may respond, "That is not good," meaning it's beyond the comprehension of farangs (westerners). Waver, and she'll quickly suggest something harmless, like pad Thai.

Persist, and you'll wind up eating what may be the restaurant's best dish. The color is murky, and the bowl contains mostly vegetables with a few shreds of chicken, because Esaan is a poor region.

The vegetables are round green Thai eggplant, long beans and cabbage, which mingle in the spicy broth with lemon grass and kaffir lime leaves. Chiles are kept at a reasonable level, even for westerners who ask for "Thai style" spiciness.

What raises this curry above the ordinary is the haunting flavor of fresh dill sprigs. In Thailand, dill is called pak chee lao, because it is widely used in the cooking of Laos, which is next door to Nong Khai.

You won't find anything like it at other restaurants, the waitress says proudly. The proper accompaniment is sticky rice, which the restaurant can provide.

If you want to try more northeastern food, there is an Esaan steak and an excellent fish larb crunchy with ground rice and highly seasoned with chiles, holy basil and pak chee farang (foreign coriander), also known as sawtooth herb.

Captain Thai opened last November in a mall that includes three other Thai restaurants and a Thai sweet shop. If you want dessert, though, order the restaurant's boaloi, a bowl of warm, sweet coconut milk, strips of coconut meat and sticky rice balls colored with pandan, pumpkin and black rice. A labor intensive dessert -- the rice balls are handmade in the kitchen-- it's an interesting alternative to the usual mangoes and sticky rice.

click to enlarge set lunch at Captain Thai - B. HANSEN
  • B. Hansen
  • set lunch at Captain Thai

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