If you have taken your American Express card out for a walk lately, you have probably noticed that Los Angeles has become a city of supper clubs, dark, atmospheric – and smokeless – rooms featuring identical blends of '80s grill food and '50s lounge music; subpar creme brulee and subpar Peggy Lee. A stage in a Los Angeles dining room almost always signals mediocrity in the kitchen.
But some of the best Thai cooking seems to be in nightclubs – at Krangtedd, at Thaitown, at the Thai Food Court – and the stage, the drum riser, the battered set of JBLs that might ordinarily make you flee a new restaurant are actually promising signs.
Palm Thaimay be the most famous Thai supper club in Hollywood, and it seems as if it has always been around, anchoring a mini-mall that also includes a Thai buffet restaurant and the Thai-Chinese stronghold Ruen Pair. Thai tour buses often park out front. I used to go to Palm Thai with the late DJ Jac Zinder – the restaurant was the best place in Los Angeles to see touring Thai pop musicians – and although we would usually eat a few quail and an order of beef salad or something, we always preferred the food at Dee Prom down the street. The cooking seemed tangential to the music.
But things are looking up at Palm Thai: The food is suddenly first-rate. On a crowded Saturday night, the band onstage tumbles through a set that sounds like the Totally '80ssongbook translated into Thai, all breathy vocals and swooshy synthesizers, drum machines and guitar solos mailed in from backstage at a Journey concert. With the music come bottles of Singha. And with the beer, you eat Thai bar snacks: crisp-skinned Thai sour sausages hot from the grill, served with fried peanuts and raw cabbage; beef jerky, fried to a tooth-wrenching chaw; deep-fried little quail, glazed with salt and pepper, as crisp-skinned as Cantonese squab, whose strong-tasting dark meat oozes juice.
There is a proper papaya salad, the unripe fruit shredded into crunchy slaw, with taut chile heat, sweet-tart citrus dressing and the briny sting of salt-preserved raw crab. The chicken-foot salad is a good call here, ghost-white shards of slithery meat tossed with slivers of raw red onion and assorted fresh herbs, sluiced with citrus, supercharged with a perfectly balanced spiciness. Palm Thai prepares the best version in town of suea rong hai, northeastern-style barbecued beef, a fatty, garlicky, well-charred cut, like the end piece of a really good roast beef, sliced and served with an intense, rust-colored chile puree that is the Thai equivalent of chipotle salsa.
As in most great Thai places, finding the restaurant's actual specialties requires a bit of persistence. Non-Thai customers are routinely brought a roster of the familiar cooking of suburban Thai restaurants, the pad Thai noodles, mint-leaf chicken and “naked” shrimp you've seen 500 times. Or you can request a second menu, which includes most of Palm Thai's best dishes, fiery salads, Isaan-style bar snacks and elaborate soups. Much of the restaurant's exotica is confined to a third, untranslated menu tucked inside the second one, and if you ask nicely, a waitress may translate a few items for you.
Try the red curry of wild boar, quite hot but tempered with coconut milk and flavored with lime leaves, galangal and unripe green peppercorns still on the branch. The boar itself, sliced thinly and simmered in the sauce, has good flavor, like pork gone wild, and is chewy enough to occupy your teeth for hours. (Boar is not a meat for people who prize tenderness above all other virtues.) Venison, done exactly the same way, tastes more like the deer your uncle Fred shot last Christmas than like the clean, denatured New Zealand venison you find at restaurants with valet parking. The braised quail is worth asking for, curried and stewed down into something that resembles a gamy Thai salmis.
Steamed trout, served with vegetables, comes in a heavy, fish-shaped chafing dish that sits over a Sterno inferno. As you eat the fish, seasoning to taste with a chile-inflected fish sauce, you spoon light, lemon-grass-infused broth from a tureen into the chafing dish and into your bowl. By the end of the meal, the trout and vegetables have added body and flavor to the bubbling broth, which has become a light, sophisticated fish soup on its own: spectacular.
Frog is available in a thin, fermented-bamboo curry, kaeng kob, which has the aroma of a clean barn, and the heat of a Bessemer converter. “This tastes good now,” says the owner. “But it will hurt your butt in the morning.”
Instead, stick to the pepper-garlic frog, crunchy, fried bits of the amphibian set on a layer of fried minced garlic so thick that it looks at first like a plateful of granola, as much garlic as even a Thai person could want. The third time we ordered this dish, the frog was garnished with thin, moss-green, disconcertingly crunchy croutons of . . . deep-fried frog skin. What gave the game away were the bits of skin that had been slipped off the frog's feet, long, wrinkly toes and all, which were rolled elegantly at the top and bore an uncanny resemblance to opera-length frog gloves that Barbie might wear. Frog gloves: Accept no substitute.
5273 Hollywood Blvd., Hlywd.; (213) 462-5073. Open daily 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Dinner for two, food only, $18-$40. Beer and wine. Takeout. Guarded lot parking. MC, V. Recommended dishes: garlic-pepper frog; curried boar; steamed trout.