Photo by Anne Fishbein
HI THAI NOODLE IS THE NEWEST restaurant in Thai Town, a bright, noisy shotgun marriage between a fast-food restaurant and a stylish café, a collegiate hangout and a serious noodle shop, staffed with a crew of young women who resemble club kids and featuring a menu of noodle dishes that rarely cost more than six bucks apiece. One end of the restaurant is dominated by a huge television screen pumping out concert videos that lean more toward the metal-edged products of the Thai equivalents of Iron Maiden than toward syrupy Thai teen-pop, usually cranked to 10. A Chinese ceremonial gong hangs in the window. Place mats invite you to say “Hi” in 10 different languages. Giant color photographs of the restaurant’s dishes line the walls, shot in gauzy soft focus, so that you can compare your own bowl of pad Thai, stewed pork leg or shiny red Thai barbecue with the glowing, idealized versions mounted over your head.
Noisy pan-Asian noodle restaurants have been popular in the San Gabriel Valley for a few years now — converted coffee shops run by Thai entrepreneurs that sling yen ta fo and pad Thai and hot-sour shrimp soup to young customers from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Vietnam — so it makes sense that the fad would eventually wind up in Thai Town, where the existing noodle shops are either late-night dives or slightly fusty lunch counters. Until now, there has been nothing in the neighborhood edged with the teenage glamour of Noodle Planet in Alhambra or Nandarang in Koreatown, no place for kids to feel young and Thai and 100 percent American, to table-hop, to flirt, to listen to loud music that I suspect makes their parents grind their teeth.
The menu is as basic as the music on the screen, a few different noodle dishes from the Bangkok street-food playbook, but this is a pretty good place to experience the offhanded excellence of real Thai cooking: vivid flavors, fresh ingredients and luscious textures, put together with something like love.
If you look up and down the room, you will see that almost half the people in the restaurant are eating noodles called yoa wa raj, egg noodles (or rice noodles or really skinny rice noodles) in a strong, murky-brown broth, garnished with chunks of stewed beef and translucent lengths of beef tendon cooked down into a sort of vaporous slipperiness, a texture that rhymes with the gentle elasticity of the noodles. Lettuce leaves melt into the soup. The tough chunks of beef absorb some of the broth, swelling and softening as you eat them. The noodles are garnished with crunchy bits of toasted garlic and tart bits of pickled garlic, which eventually find their way into the broth, seasoning each bite in a slightly different way — the last bite as compelling as the first. Yoa wa raj is a serious bowl of noodles, even if you should choose to order it without the tendon.
There is a really good version of loog-chin nam sai here, egg noodles in a clear broth with fish balls and crunchy pork meatballs and shrimp balls and tasty, dark-brown balls probably made of emulsified liver, singing with the taste of black pepper and citrus, and even better spiked with a splash of Hi’s vibrantly tart green chile sauce, which a waitress will bring if you ask. You can probably find better local renditions of pad kee mao, “drunkards’ noodles” fried with basil, shrimp and a punishing dose of hot green chile, but the wide rice noodles are floppy and chewy, the flavors are clean and clear, and the flame under the wok is obviously set to “stun,” so that half the noodles are rimmed with crunchy bits of char. On weekends, there is sometimes kanom jiin, fresh, soft, house-made rice noodles tossed with a rather gummy peanut sauce and steamed vegetables, barely gelled enough to lift with chopsticks, the sort of noodles you inhale rather than chew. The roasted, fried, braised hunks of pork leg that Hi serves with rice and a gram or two of pickled vegetables are remarkable oblongs of meat. When the proprietor, the extravagantly inked Supat Lertpiriyapong, wanders out of the kitchen, even the old guys nod their heads in respect, even the tablesful of spiky-haired kids nursing tall glasses of neon-bright melon slush. Because he is Sam the Outlaw, the most famous Thai tattoo artist in all of Los Angeles, and this is his domain, a kingdom of Thai noodles done exactly the way Sam the Outlaw wishes them to be done.
Have the banana-stuffed egg rolls dusted with powdered sugar and coconut. They’re kind of tasty.
Hi Thai Noodle, 5229 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. Open seven days, 24 hours. MC, V. No alcohol. Street parking. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $10–$14.