Much like hundreds of other Thai restaurateurs in Southern California, Andy Ricker was attracted to Los Angeles in part thanks to LAX-C, the “Thai Costco” that sits on nearly six acres of land at 1100 N. Broadway, not far from downtown.
In addition to the main cash-and-carry grocery business, LAX-C is known to Thai-Americans as a place for a quick bite at its food court, known as LAX-C BBQ Express. But even beyond that food stall, the complex, tucked in between the outskirts of Chinatown and the Dogtown housing projects, has enough food-centric tenants to be considered a formidable food destination. Symbiosis is at work here: All the restaurateurs frequent each other's places for the famed dishes, and of course shop at LAX-C.
Here's a rundown for the amazing restaurants and food shops within the LAX-C complex, a guide that'll help you eat what Andy Ricker eats when he shops for groceries for Pok Pok L.A. Hey, maybe you’ll even run into him.
Chimney Coffee, the only third-wave-y coffee shop in Chinatown, has been quietly pouring Stumptown espresso in LAX-C for three years. With a second branch in Bangkok, Chimney is known for its house-baked green tea brick toast. This square bomb of carb and sugar consists of Chimney’s “milk” bread, two scoops of green tea ice cream from Fosselman’s, green tea “butter,” green tea Kit Kat and a veritable mole hill of whipped cream. For an extra bonus round of Thai-ness (and 200 calories), ask for a condensed milk drizzle.
Much of the shop’s customers come from the brewery complex or lofts just outside Chinatown, as the neighborhood itself is still not much of a coffee-drinking community. Next up for Chimney? A Thai Town branch with a tighter focus on coffee. Due this winter, it may feature Sugarbird Sweets as well as a craft Thai coffee previously unseen in L.A.
The name of this restaurant is rather confusing, and proprietor Bunyaphat “Nick” Rojpaisarnnukul understands the frustration. Rojpaisarnnukul changed the restaurant concept after the build-out was complete, and he says the city would require new permitting if the exterior signage were to be redesigned. And so the “E-Sea” part of the name stays, despite the restaurant’s noodle focus.
Rojpaisarnnukul decided to go with kuway tiaw and kuway chap (rice) noodle soups because noodles soups are already popular in L.A., and they are dishes he truly loves. Yet despite being one of only two Thai restaurants in Chinatown, E-sea Fresh remains mostly unknown to Chinatown residents even after two years of operation.
Rojpaisarnnukul, who previously operated a restaurant in Bangkok, says E-sea’s duck noodle soup, made from his Chinese-Thai family’s ancient recipe, consists of “fortified” duck broth, with thick slices of both breast and thigh meat. To fully utilize the massive kitchen, E-sea also braises 60 ducks a week and distributes them to various Chinatown and Thai Town restaurants.
The surprisingly dish here, a fried mussel “hoy tawt,“ is a Rojpaisarnnukul invention. You won’t find it on the streets of Bangkok, much less Los Angeles: In this untraditional preparation, the oyster omelette is no longer an omelette, but consists of individual oysters, battered, fried, then quickly tossed with fresh sprouts.
More menu items, such as braised duck over rice, are in the works, but kway tiaw nua (No. 1) (beef noodle soup) remains a popular item, as does the kuway tiaw ped (duck noodle soup).
LAX-C Express BBQ
The only food stall inside LAX-C Market proper, LAX-C Express BBQ is anchored by a long steam table irreverently standing amongst aisles upon aisles of Thai cookery and ingredients. Ganda Thai regulars will be very comfortable standing in front of the steam tables and ordering in the style known in Filipino as turo-turo, or point-point.
Supatra Santhivong is the the GM at LAX-C Market and she also oversees the LAX-C BBQ Express stall, which extends into the middle of the market's shopping aisles. Beyond the various ready-to-eat curries, the most popular dish here remains the pad krapow gai — stir-fried minced chicken with Thai basil on rice — topped with an egg. It’s what restaurateurs in Bangkok eat for lunch, and it is what they order now that they've immigrated to the U.S., stopping by for a quick meal during LAX-C shopping.
The pre-packed Thai chicken rice here costs a lowly $6, and comes with an archetypal sauce that represents everything righteous in Thai cuisine. Most endearing of all may be the little balls of chicken-stuffed steamed tapioca balls, saku sai gai. Packaged with fierce birds eye (or rat shit, depending who’s asking) peppers, these chewy miniature pearly golf balls are perfect snacks when paired with a liter of Chang beer at home.
Rujilapa Pattana has operated the Mae Ting stand for more than 10 years at LAX-C. Seven years ago the stand expanded to three employees on the weekend (one handling khanom krok, one handling somtum, and one on the grill).
The second most well-known dish here, the somtum papaya salad, comes with fresh and dry shrimp with fish paste and fish sauce — a perfect balance of sweet, spicy, sour and salty. It is still the quintessential street food, paired with muu yang or gai yang skewers, all accompanied by sticky rice. To finish off, order Pattana's most famous treat: the khanom krok, or dessert tacos.
In the beginning, Pa Mae Ting Took over someone’s khanom krok equipment, but in order to improve the taste, Pattana imported new khanom krok stoves from Thailand and reinvented the ooey-gooey dessert’s recipe. (The now-famous khanom kroks were actually tweaked from a recipe found in a Thai cookbook, as Pattana didn’t cook much while pursuing her singing career in Thailand.)
Mae Ting's also stuffs as many as 60 sai kroks (soured Issan sausages) a week. They are grilled, not fried. The unique Northeastern sausages are also worth mentioning as they are properly soured (thanks to the plentiful sticky rice in stuffing) and lean towards more of a Taiwanese sticky rice-stuffed sausage than a typical Issan sausage, which is abundant with ground pork.
This is the closest an Angeleno can be to Sukumvit street vendors without taking a lengthy flight. Thai restaurateurs from as far as Fresno come by Mae Ting's while shopping for groceries at LA-C. Still there are no plans for expansion, as Pattana still writes for the local Thai newspaper Thai-LA.com, even while singing Thai standards part-time in Thai Town.
Thong Lo is a bit of an oddity. It’s supposedly a bhanom (sweets) shop, yet it has very few freshly prepared desserts or candies. Visitors seems to scurry to the rear center of the store with the Thai-flavored Lays and ridged Lays — known simply as Ruffles to Americans. Thai-flavored Lays are some of the most umami- laden (read: MSG-rich) wafers of modified potato on this planet.
Don’t forget to check the coolers for the little vials of hyper-caffeinated Thai energy drinks named “Nine Elephants.” There won’t be any Red Bull, but the nasty energy cocktail is definitely produced in Thailand, the origin of Red Bull. Thong Lo is more for the professional dog walker than the Thai foodie in America, but it’s a nice break between full meals at LAX-C Express and the dessert “bang bang” at Chimney House Coffee.
All shops and restaurants at 1100 N. Main Street in Los Angeles.