Thai Town, that culinary paradise in East Hollywood, is home to late-night noodle shops and curry-minded nightclubs, hot-pot specialists and chicken parlors, formal restaurants with long menus and dessert shops that feature a stew or two almost as an afterthought. There have always been a few extremely basic restaurants in the neighborhood that did almost all of their business at lunch, but it is only recently that I have become aware of them as “rod-sabs” — the Bangkok equivalent of lunch counters, more or less — whose Chinese-inflected menus are based around barbecue, braised meats and a few noodle dishes. Rod-Ded, which has been my favorite place to go after the Sunday-morning Hollywood market for years, is well known in the Thai community for its pungent bowls of duck noodle soup, as well as for a delicious dish of stewed pork leg with homemade pickles and the crustiest, most delicious fried bananas you have ever tasted.
Formerly known as Lee’s Thai-Chinese Restaurant, Rod-Ded occupies a space anonymous even for this side of town, an old-fashioned corner dining room with high ceilings, a few faded travel posters and décor minimal to the point of nonexistence. High above the vinyl booths, Renaissance Madonnas and ceramic Buddhas float above gilt shelves. A chalkboard in the back lists the day’s specials in an elegant Thai scrawl, but although I have been to Rod-Ded maybe 20 times in the last year, I still cannot tell whether it hides awesomely spicy specialties that I will never be let in on, or whether most of the things worth ordering are included on the battered laminated menus on each table.
Like all the Thai restaurants in Hollywood now, Rod-Ded serves a mixed clientele, big Latino families attracted by the cheap, spicy seafood, many of the elderly Thais who have lived in this neighborhood since the ’70s, and a small sprinkling of hipsters — Sabor y Cultura Café, the coffeehouse where screenwriters sit rooted to their iBooks like potted plants fertilized with caffeine, is just across the street.
I have been coming to Rod-Ded for so long, and I am so set in my ways, that the waitresses tend to confirm my order rather than actually take it. When I attempt to get something different — a boiled-tripe salad; the noodle soup yen-ta-fo, dyed Barbie-box pink with fermented bean paste; or Chiu Chow–style fried shrimp balls instead of koo chai, a fried rice-flour biscuit stuffed with sautéed leeks that manages to be crisp and gooey at the same time — I will hear about it from two or three different people at the restaurant, as if I am failing to live up to their expectations.
But there is also a spare, scrappy grilled-beef salad, a little like a basic dinner salad tossed with chile, bits of meat and plenty of lime, which tastes like something a Thai-American mom might throw together as an appetizer when her kids bring home a couple of unexpected friends to dinner. The stir-fries are for the most part forgettable, on the oily side, but Rod-Ded’s version of pad kee mao, rice noodles stir-fried with basil, is usually pretty good in spite of itself, slightly charred from contact with a really hot wok, and brought up to breathtaking heat with fresh and dried chiles if you like it that way. (If you want your food spicy, you’ve got to insist on it here, but it’s worth the hassle.) I really like Rod-Ded’s pad Thai made with glass noodles, ground peanuts and lots of fish sauce, which glows with a sort of splendid, animal tartness when you ignite the flavors with a spritz of lime.
Still, Rod-Ded’s logo pictures a duck in flight, soaring over rice paddies. And its great specialty is the roast duck, gently spiced, and nearly spreadably soft. You can get the duck spooned over rice or plopped straight onto a plate. Best of all is the duck served with thick rice noodles in soup — a broth violently flavored in a manner you might expect from a place that buys cloves by the hundredweight, a soup as slithery as it is delicious. Stewed pork hock, cooked long enough almost to collapse under its own weight, on a bed of pickled greens, tastes like an elegant soul food dish from a Southern state whose location you just can’t place. And although it appears on no menu, there are usually the best fried bananas in Hollywood, cooked to order, crisp and sweet and mouth-searingly hot in their oily batter, dished out in a Styrofoam box. (Make sure to put in your order early on.) You could make a meal of only the specialties here. And usually I do.
Rod-Ded, 5623 Hollywood Blvd., (323) 962-8382. Lunch and dinner, Thurs.–Tues., 11 a.m.–8 p.m. Cash only. No alcohol. Street parking. Lunch for two, food only, $10-$14.