If America’s Thai food trend is heading toward the model set by Pok Pok, Andy Ricker’s famous Portland, Oregon, project, then the trend is heading northward, away from the familiar Bangkok street food to whch most Americans have grown accustomed – the likes of Massaman curry, pad Thai and tom yum soup – and toward wacky Northern Thai street food: pork blood soup, herbal jackfruit salads, pork belly curries, chili dips and hand-crafted sausage.
In its entirety, Northern Thailand's cuisine is full of challenging flavors that will assault the casual American's palate. (Pig brains steamed in banana leaf, anyone?) There are plenty of dishes that are less aggressively exotic, though, and maybe none so much as khao soi, a curry noodle soup so unfailingly delicious that it can inspire devotion regardless what part of the world you happen to be from.
Khao soi — a curry-based soup whose main components are noodles, both crunchy and not crunchy, meat, cilantro and coconut milk — is easily Chiang Mai’s most digestible export and most famous dish, but its origins lie elsewhere. Most believe it was inspired by Myanmar’s ohn no khao schwe, while some contend it was initially a product of Chinese Muslim cuisine. Either way, Chiang Mai has adopted it and perfected it into one of the finest street dishes in the world. In a 2011 New York Times piece, Andy Ricker described khao soi as “exotic without being weird, and, more important, completely delicious.” There’s probably not a better description.
There are, thankfully, several places in L.A. to try it: Spicy BBQ and Sri Siam in Hollywood, both of which have a version many enjoy; Top Thai in Northridge, which is a Spicy BBQ sister restaurant; and Renu Nakorn in Norwalk, whose version, while decent, is often a bit too creamy and sweet.
But, much in the way that Pa-Ord and Sapp dominate L.A.'s boat noodle wars, there are really only two local spots to sample a pure khao soi: Pailin, in the heart of Thai Town, and Night+Market, Kris Yenbamroong’s West Hollywood project.
Pailin has been run by a Northern Thai family for a couple decades and is serving what is probably the best (and cheapest) Northern Thai menu in the city: wildly good spiced larb, funky Northern versions of the popular som tum papaya salad, another great curry noodle served on the street called kanom jeen, a terrific take on a Southeast Asian soup called kway chap.
Pailin’s rendition of khao soi was a wonderful discovery, reminiscent, with a few minor issues, of what you would find in Chiang Mai: just spicy enough, not too sweet, neither too thin nor too thick, accompanied by a small plate of pickled mustard, raw shallot and lime.
Night+Market is Pailin’s opposite in many ways: Yenbamroong is a celebrity chef now while Pailin is a simple mom-and-pop shop; Night+Market, which just opened a second branch in Silver Lake, can be considered L.A.’s own version of Pok Pok while Pailin is one of Thai Town’s unobtrusive gems. Both of them are excellent ambassadors for food from Northern Thailand.
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Little can be added to Night+Market’s well-documented (and deserved) praise. The menu includes a few outstanding Northern Thai dishes enhanced by stellar ingredients; the Startled Pig is one of L.A.’s best dishes, period.
The khao soi is too, price aside. The traditional recipe is modified slightly at Song – the whole thing is gentrified a bit, the broth is a tad thicker than what you would see in Thailand and the meat is braised hanger steak and beef tendon rather than chicken on the bone. Regardless, the khao soi is delicious. Yet another reason to be happy about the Pok Pok revolution.