You didn't come for the music videos, but they're staring you in the eye from across the small room: a heavily made-up waif darting teary-eyed between two equally made-up fellows making mournful faces and beckoning emphatically. You don't know Thai or Isan (or even enough to know which language you're incapable of deciphering), but you're weeping a little bit too. Your eyes are watering because you've just bolted down what must have been a healthy, concentrated payload of chile concealed haphazardly among the glass noodles, seafood and ground chicken of your order of yum woon sen ta lay.
You're at Koreatown's Isaan Station, one of the best Thai establishments outside of Thai Town in Los Angeles (second perhaps only to Night + Market) serving the increasingly popular sour, hot, funky flavors of northeastern Thai cooking — the rice-engorged fermented pork sausages, the green papaya salads with pickled crab, the charred meats, the sticky rice, the pungent mounds of larb.
That yum woon sen ta lay is a slightly warm salad, a tangle of slippery glass noodles speckled with celery slices and green onion cylinders and loaded up with chewy clumps of chicken, a few pink shrimp, and curls of calamari. The seafood has a fresh-cooked springy snap. The whole mess comes doused in a lip-stinging lime-chile-fish sauce bath you'd just as soon enjoy in a glass.
The som dtum thai boasts shards of papaya, slivers of kaffir lime, tomato chunks, peanuts and tiny dried shrimp. If you ordered these dishes at a seven or above on the restaurant's vaguely defined scale-of-ten “heat index” (our phrase, not Isaan Station's), you'll be feeling a nice, warm sear radiating out across your tongue and throat and a cool sweat beading on your forehead — the beginnings of an ecstatic endorphin high.
But the highlight of a meal at Isaan Station may be the grilled chicken: khai yang ob oong, a large turmeric-coated leg quarter sliced like bread through the bone. The exterior is slick and blistered; beneath, the sheets of meat separate from the bone, tender and just salty enough. Two equally addictive dipping sauces accompany the bird, one honey-sweet, the other a fish-sauce-accented number shot through with Christmas-colored chile confetti.
After chicken like that, the rest is fairly unimportant. If you care, the interior of the restaurant is extremely clean and minimal. With its image of the shimmering gold Temple of the Emerald Buddha, rainbow sunrise and flamboyant fonts, the menu could be a Fillmore poster circa 1969. The servers smile frequently. A Coke comes with a tiny metal cup stuffed to the brim with crushed ice. The meal ends with a green apple Dum-Dum. Some might grumble about the television and those music videos but they add to the ambiance and encourage conversation more than they distract. Also, if you start crying, you can use them as an excuse.
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