Vim must have been one of the first dozen Thai restaurants in Los Angeles, a bright, fragrant storefront on a strip of South Vermont that anchored one of the city's original Thai neighborhoods. Composer Carl Stone named one of his earliest MIDI opuses after the restaurant, known for its particularly spicy food. A couple of critics, dazzled by the pineapple rice and fried oysters with ginger, called the place the best Thai restaurant in town.
Alone, I think, among the early Los Angeles Thai restaurants, Vim developed a devoted Latino clientele, necessitating a trilingual menu that translates tom kha kai as both “chicken-coconut soup” and “sopa picante de pollo con leche de coco.”
Now there is a second Vim, in the Hollywood Boulevard mini-mall space that used to house the Thai supper club Dee Prom, a bright, yawning place, as cheerful as a Burger King, with tomato-red banquettes and gleaming Formica tabletops, clean tile and fluorescent lights bright enough to illuminate an operating theater. A health department “A” is displayed in the front window in a spot that couldn't be more prominent if it were illuminated with a 100-watt bulb and framed in blinking neon.
In this part of Hollywood, restaurants tend to be frequented mostly by Thais, but Vim is as multicultural as the neighborhood, with as many Spanish-speaking families as Thai ones, also Armenians, South Asians and a smattering of the East Hollywood goatee crowd. Vim serves the strong, basic Thai food many of us fell in love with 20 years ago, neither particularly regional nor toned down to please the American palate, neither lightened nor laced with exotic produce.
Grilled chicken satay is the stuff you may remember from the '70s, strips of skewered bird stained yellow with turmeric and served with a spicy ground-peanut sauce slicked with red oil. Peppery, spongy hockey pucks of fried fish cake come with a tart salad of vinegared cucumbers. Great mounds of curried fried rice are as yellow as the Happy Face on your little sister's T-shirt. When you order fried pork with pepper and garlic, you get a plate of bare, thinly sliced meat, bereft of the mounds of caramelized garlic chips that usually accompany the dish, but intensely flavored and glistening with juice. Even the fried glass noodle with shrimp and egg is good, the dairy sweetness of egg and a smoky, pungent hint of black mushroom enlivening what sounds like the dullest dish on the menu.
Salads may not be the incendiary, gritty things you find at the newer regional restaurants, but they have a freshness, a purity of flavor, that has largely gone missing from suburban Thai joints: Chinese barbecued duck hacked into chunks, tossed with chile and lime; grilled shrimp, crisp at the edges; a chewy squid salad, quite hot. I was surprised to find something that resembled a superior version of the Isaan barbecued-beef dish sometimes known as Tiger Cry (the grease drop-lets rendered from the cooking beef are said to resemble giant feline tears), the meat marinated and grilled medium-rare, and tasting very much like the fatty, charred end cut the cook usually hacks from a roast beef and eats herself.
Seafood soup, strong, powerfully sour, with the dragon-breath smack of old-fashioned Thai food and shot through with fish, shrimp and squid, may be the most popular dish among the Latino customers, a different flavor of a classic sopa siete mares. The chicken-coconut soup, if not as herbally complex as some versions in town, has a clean, concentrated lemongrass tartness glazed with chile heat, and overlaid with the musky scent of what tastes like fresh galangal.
Vim may not be the best place to find eggplants the size of Ping-Pong balls, jungle curries of venison or bubbling clay pots filled with fermented bamboo. But when you're in the mood for pad Thai noodles or mint-leaf chicken, oyster omelets or prik king spicy enough to strip the enamel off your teeth, you can't do better. And Vim is cheap: Most of the dishes cost less than $5; a whole fried fish less than $10.
5132 Hollywood Blvd.; (213) 662-1017. Open daily 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $9-$17. Beer. Takeout. Lot parking. Cash only.
Recommended dishes: duck salad; barbecued beef; seafood soup. Also at 831 S. Vermont Ave.; (213) 386-2338.