P’Toi A’prasert is a petite Thai woman, hardly 40 kilograms even when soaking wet in coconut milk. She took an early retirement from the Royal Thai Navy years ago and, in 2008, came to the United States, with her pensioner husband, looking for a fresh start. Without much English under their belts, the couple settled in Thai Town.
Thanks to her cooking family, A’prasert’s knowledge of her mother flavors runs as deep as any tattooed chef in America with formal training, and she quickly found a job cooking at Kruang Tedd restaurant on Hollywood. A’prasert happens to be a devout Muslim who observes halal.
The problem? The chef cannot taste the food she's cooked before it crosses the pass — because Kruang Tedd’s kitchen isn’t halal. This means that if you eat A’prasert's glorious khao mok gai, or buried chicken rice, you'll have to tell her that it's as good as she thinks it is.
More on that later — first, a little backstory. The building that hosts Kruang Tedd has a long Thai culinary lineage. Previously it was Tepparod, possibly the first Thai restaurant in L.A.'s Thai Town. As early as 1972, the California Restaurant Writers Association nominated Tepparod as one of the best “ethnic” restaurants in Los Angeles. It hustled Thai food to farangs for more than 20 years before closing.
Tepparod became Kruang Tedd, which quickly became a gathering place for Thai rock musicians in the '90s. Alas, aspiring rockers make mediocre restaurateurs, and Kruang Tedd soon hit a patchy stretch.
Two years ago, while brainstorming concepts to push Kruang Tedd toward the forefront of the competitive Thai Town dining scene after years of neglect, A’prasert casually mentioned she could test a few Muslim Thai dishes not found elsewhere in the area.
The results were the most unusual chicken and rice in Los Angeles — and a Muslim-Thai oxtail soup previously unknown to Angelenos. The khao mok gai (buried chicken rice) and sup haang wua (oxtail soup) were both immediate hits.
The chicken and rice of khao mok gai is essentially a Thai biryani. Deviating from traditional halal cart chicken and rice, it uses turmeric in addition to curry, and the rice is steamed in plentiful coconut milk. As suggested by the dish name, marinated (and pan-fried) chicken leg quarters are buried under par-cooked jasmine rice, which is steamed a bit to ensure complete flavor osmosis. Upon serving, a mint-green chile sauce complements the rice, much like Halal Guy’s white sauce.
There’s chicken and rice in Manhattan, and there’s chicken and rice in L.A.'s Thai Town. One has been hugely hyped; the other is a dormant crouching tiger, as it were, ready to dominate the palate. The oxtail soup tastes like the beautiful marriage of Vietnamese duo boi and Thai tom yum, sporting dreamy chunks of braised beef. Portions of both are insanely large by Thai standards.
Despite the success of the two dishes, Kruang Tedd manager Noi Vanichyanukroh is hesitant to expand the Muslim-Thai menu, as he worries about the health of A’prasert, who is now 60. This year, she wasn’t able to fulfill her Ramadan fast. Thankfully, the night shift at Kruang — the restaurant is open until 2 a.m. on weekends — has mastered her recipe. The second shift happens to be mostly Issan, non-Muslim, women who dish out a coconutty khao soi noodle soup, finished with crisp egg noodles.
While plenty of Muslim-Thais in Southern Thailand, as well as Bangkok, live in perfect comfort in Thailand, A’prasert’s life in the United States is one of inconvenience — since the chef can't actually taste her own cooking.
In his biography Life, on the Line, noted chef Grant Achatz (Alinea, Next) details the tragedy of completely losing his taste buds due to tongue cancer in 2007, and having to rely on the other chefs on his restaurant's line for survival.
A’prasert’s cooking style in Kruang Tedd’s commercial kitchen is evocative of Achatz-during-chemo phase, except A’prasert has never sampled her own food at Kruang Tedd, ever. When asked how she cooks her Muslim-Thai dishes at KT, she coyly points to her heart, then smiles wryly. “The kitchen team helps me, and often so do the customers,” she finally answers.
Still, she says the two Muslim dishes offered at Kruang Tedd are prepared exactly as she would cook them for her spouse. The Muslim dry spices (versus traditional Thai fresh spices) are sourced from various Pakistani and Bangladeshi markets in Koreatown, just south of Thai Town. The meats aren’t halal — since neither is KT’s kitchen — but the flavor is pure Muslim-Thai.