It is selfish, perhaps, to covet another city's Thai restaurant; to wonder what it might be like if a favorite kitchen were on Melrose instead of in, say, Kitsilano. Los Angeles probably has more regional Thai restaurants than the rest of North America put together, and while the Chiang Mai–style cuisine at Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas is fantastic, and New York's Sripiphai might fit in on North Hollywood's Sherman Way, the Valley has three-dozen Thai kitchens as good as Sripiphai or better, and the core of Lotus of Siam's menu is identical to that of Renu Nakorn, the original restaurant of its owners. L.A.'s Thai restaurants comprise one of the city's major treasures.
Yet even discounting the Thai motherland, David Thompson, at his restaurants in Australia and England, flies in fruits and herbs that are simply unobtainable here, USDA regulations being what they are. (We will never see a perfect mangosteen in California.)
And more to the point, Portland has Pok Pok, a basic Thai restaurant of a type you would think could be common here, but just isn't: an old Portland house converted into a shrine to Thai street food, a temple of sticky fish sauce glazes, grilled things on skewers and immoderate chile heat. There are roast game hens and fish-sauce chicken wings and grilled boar collar with iced mustard greens, and an awful lot of whiskey. Andy Ricker may not be Thai but he cooks as if he is — Pok Pok won a James Beard Award last spring. Pok Pok is what Zuni Café might resemble if Judy Rodgers had spent her junior year abroad in Chiang Mai instead of in Burgundy, and started her career grilling takeout chickens instead of at Chez Panisse. Fish sauce wings and harsh Mekong whiskey. You could get used to that.
I bring this up because I've been going lately to Night + Market, a homegrown Thai street-food emporium attached to Talesai on the Sunset Strip. It's not a neighborhood where you would expect street food, unless you count the dude pushing Tijuana dogs between the Roxy and the Whisky A Go Go, but sometimes you take your adventure where you can find it.
I had originally been dismissive of Night + Market as a tired gimmick when it opened late last year, an attempt to cash in on the gastropub thing booming in local restaurants at the moment. Talesai is a well-respected restaurant in the Thai community, but few foodists have really been excited about the place since it moved up from Melrose a million years ago, and the thrills of its har mok, a traditional dish that seemed almost revolutionary when they introduced it in the 1980s, had long since worn away.
But you kept hearing about Night + Market, in conversation and in the food blogs. Night + Market's chef was Kris Yenbamroong, the hip son of the family who owned Talesai, and he apparently was as inspired by the informality of pop-ups like LudoBites as he was by the street food he had eaten in Bangkok as a teenager. And when I finally made it into the place, through a curtained doorway from the restaurant next door, through the weirdly bare room, to a table near where the Warren Beatty movie Shampoo was projected silently onto a wall, it was … groovier than I had expected it to be, with Mekong whiskey if you wanted it and nicely mixed cocktails if you didn't, soul music on the sound system, and an aroma of garlic, fish sauce and grilling meat that settled onto the room in a fragrant haze. Something was clearly going on.
Like many Thai Town restaurants, Night + Market has a menu based on the bar snack. And you will find nearly every part of the pig portioned out into a kind of Thai equivalent to tapas, a unit of consumption carefully calibrated to the refreshment inherent in a single bottle of Singha. There is grilled pork collar, the Isaan favorite, which Yenbamroong calls “toro” in honor of its extreme richness; and house-fermented sour sausage with peanuts, lime and raw bird peppers; and pig's ear fried with garlic and chile sauce. Pork belly? Of course, flavored with fish sauce; sweet, fried ribs with garlic; and a huge pork hock braised in soy. The fried pig tails are as hard to leave alone as popcorn — an 8-year-old of my acquaintance paused only briefly when he was informed that they weren't spareribs.
You've probably heard about Yenbamroong's pad Thai, which is the minimal, barely sweetened version you can never find even in L.A., and the big curried crab, and the occasional special of nam prik ong, a Northern Thai chile sauce you scoop up with fresh vegetables. There is a thick, intense kao soi, the Chiang Mai–style noodles with lime and coconut milk.
Dessert is likely to be an ice cream sandwich — not the oblongs you get from the Good Humor truck, but coconut-milk ice cream stuffed into thick hunks of charcoal-grilled toast.
Have you ever felt as if a restaurant was just waiting for you to walk into it?
NIGHT + MARKET | 9041 Sunset Blvd., W. Hlywd. | (310) 275-9724 | nightmarketla.com | Open nightly 6–11 p.m. | AE, MC, V | Full bar | Valet parking | Snacks $6-$7; rice and noodles $10-$14; large plates $10-$21 | Recommended dishes: fried pig tail; khao soi; pig ear with chile and garlic