Is food art? It's an unanswerable question, a debate that's simultaneously fascinating and played out, up there with “Beatles or Stones?” and “Is there a God?”
Yet it's come up repeatedly in my conversations about Night + Market Song. The artistry here is not about food manipulations, or plating-as-painting, or lofty, high-priced experiences. Quite the opposite. When it comes to his food, if anything chef-owner Kris Yenbamroong is an anthropologist and preservationist, hoarding and re-creating recipes from Thailand and making no moral distinctions between flavors he discovers on the streets in small villages and what he finds on strip-club buffets.
But the restaurant itself, the mix of food presented but also the room's aggressive bright lights, its colorful vinyl tablecloths, its Pepto-pink façade and even its clientele, is pure pop art. And like the best pop art, it produces strong reactions as to its meaning and worth.
“He's created a very unconventional relationship between chef and customer,” one friend — a veteran of the art world — said. “It makes me kind of uncomfortable. I can't tell if he's playing a joke on us, or if any of it is sincere. Are we really supposed to eat and love blood and MSG soup? Is the space purposefully uncomfortable? Is the service purposefully kind of bad? He could just be laughing at us. It could be one giant 'fuck you.'?”
In fact, the conversations I've had about Night + Market Song over the past few months might be the best indicators of the restaurant's strengths and flaws. One friend, a restaurant critic from out of town, declared Yenbamroong's food the best, most vibrant Thai he's had in the country, the curries the most intricate and nuanced, the papaya salad the most vivid and satisfying. Another friend, also a critic from another city, wrote to me after eating there:
“Night + Market Song was interesting. I felt like I was eating the kind of food that makes the most sense at 2 in the morning: fried hot dogs, greasy fried chicken and gross-out dishes made with blood and bugs. It's a testament to Yenbamroong that Angelenos have embraced this food.”
It's as if they were eating at two different restaurants. You make of art what you will.
Yenbamroong has never been a conventional chef or restaurateur. Not in 2010 when, at 28, he opened the original Night + Market on the Sunset Strip, in an old gallery space adjacent to his parents' far more typical Thai restaurant, and projected art movies on the bare white walls alongside an old poster of Pete Sampras. Yenbamroong, a graduate of NYU's film school, has said the opening of the original Night + Market was inspired by private dinners held with his friend Rirkrit Tiravanija, an artist who once had a show that revolved around serving curry to gallery goers.
The food at Night + Market was (and continues to be) unapologetically and aggressively Thai: spicy, pungent and unyieldingly complex. At its best, Night + Market is an education in how sour and stinky and spicy can translate to pure hedonism.
Four years later, Night + Market Song's opening in Silver Lake moves Yenbamroong into a neighborhood perhaps better suited for his particular brand of theater. The faux-irony of a topless Cindy Crawford poster hanging on the audaciously bright orange walls in the dining room plays perfectly to this crowd, which varies hugely but, if we're being honest skews way more toward the pink-haired, nerd-core, mustached, Silver Lake faithful than it does moneyed older couples (though I've seen a few of those, as well as elderly Thai men, Muslim women in headscarves, families and businessmen).
Here he branches out, serving some of the same dishes that gave him renown in West Hollywood but also throwing in food that more closely resembles what you might crave three too many beers in.
The off-menu fried chicken sandwich — which towers with intensely crispy deep-fried chicken thighs, house-made ranch dressing, slices of jalapeño, cilantro and green papaya — is just about as perfect as drunk food gets. At $9, you could come in and eat that, alongside a glass of $6 box wine from Côtes du Rhône, and it might be the best under-$20 meal-plus-booze deal in town.
That same fried chicken often can be had from the specials menu, without the sandwich and served with a dark gray relish. The first time I had it, it was a replacement dish recommended by the server after another item had run out, and I didn't know what the relish was made of. “Is it eggplant?” I asked my husband. “It isn't. I can't quite tell, it's almost mushroomy, but no mushroom would have this texture.” It was dank and delicious, and turned out to be green chiles and mashed water bugs.
Yes, there's pork blood and MSG dipping soup, served with cracklings and crispy noodles, and it's hard to tell if we're supposed to actually want to eat it or if it's there just so you can say you did eat it. It's totally mild in flavor, and not nearly as soul-stirring as other blood-tinged dishes I've had from the chef in the past (koa kan chin, a steamed banana leaf that held jasmine rice fortified with pig blood and served with raw onion, cucumber, dried chile, cilantro and lime, still haunts me, years later, as one of the most comforting things I've ever eaten). Yenbamroong is serving blood soup because he can serve blood soup, and because people will order it, and yes, my friend is right — maybe he really is just playing a joke on all of us.
But if that joke includes som tum tod, I'm all in. The deep-fried papaya salad (discovered in central Thailand) is served with an aromatic dressing on the side, made of palm sugar, fish sauce, lime juice, garlic and bird's eye chile, with chunks of tomato and roasted peanuts, like state fair fried dough but crunchy and fresh and wild.
The larb, the spicy rice salads, the stinky relish made with shrimp paste and bitter eggplant, and the beef tendon Penang curry are all as bracing and wonderful as they are at the other location. I found the gaeng pa nok saap, or jungle curry soup, too salty to actually eat, especially when you take into account the way the copious chiles and all that salt interact. I took it home and dumped it into about 5 quarts of unsalted chicken stock. It was great.
For the most part, this is food cooked with extreme thought and care, the flavors built deliberately and slowly, and almost every dish you get here will have one long, low bright note: the gift of slow-roasted ginger, or chilies seared before mashing, or the addition of pork fat to a catfish “tamale,” giving it depth and savor. This food is not nonchalant in any way.
Night + Market Song has one of the most thought-out, carefully sourced wine lists in town, with wine so well suited to the food that there is potential for revelation. This sits in direct contrast to the fact that Yenbamroong serves crappy, supermarket-bought birthday cake for dessert, a nod to the tastes of Thailand, where this kind of bad cake is incredibly popular. Why doesn't he make his own? Because he doesn't need to, doesn't care. The only beers on offer are cheap industrial swill, the kind that goes great with this food.
To question the disunion of these things — the pet-nat Puzelat sparkling rosé from the Loire next to the Miller High Life; the delicate, catfish tamale pungent with ginger and chile next to a slab of cold supermarket cake — would be missing the point, or uncool, or something. It is this way because Yenbamroong wants it this way. It's his statement, his pop art, his weird nerdy brilliant irony-twisted soul in restaurant form.
I pretty much love it. But if you were a Night + Market agnostic, I'd try hard to respect your beliefs.
See also: More photos from Night + Market Song
NIGHT + MARKET SONG | Three stars | 3322 W. Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake | (323) 665-5899 | Mon.-Thu., 5-10:30 p.m.; Fri. & Sat., 5-11 p.m. | Plates, $7-$16 | Beer and wine | Street parking