In a seemingly unremarkable strip-mall restaurant three blocks south of the tourist-mobbed clusterfuck that is Hollywood and Highland, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time mulling over a hypnotizing Phuket-style curry brimming with blue crab — in the way I’d imagine a bewildered Caltech undergrad reacts to a TED Talk. It’s a large load of awesome to comprehend.
Even in a city that prides itself on delicious food served in improbable places, Luv2Eat Thai Bistro is an immediate contender for “Most Unlikely Place to Serve Authentic Thai Food.” There is the restaurant’s name, of course, which brings to mind a hashtag you’d find on a preteen’s Instagram feed. And there’s the location. It’s a good mile and a half due west of Thai Town proper, in an overexposed stretch of Hollywood long known as a gastronomic wasteland. All this is to say you’d be forgiven for swiping past this particular option while scanning Yelp for takeout, even if you were promised a “free Thai tea with check-in.”
But peer, oh doubtful one, into Luv2Eat’s cramped dining room (essentially a few tables scattered inside what was formerly a Caribbean fast-food place) and gaze upon the eye-popping lineup of dishes trickling out of the kitchen. There are purple-hued blood clams briefly steamed in their shells and graced with a fiery lime-chile sauce, and braised sparerib kua kling, the famously concentrated dry curry massaged into niblets of meat that are wok-tossed with giant sour legumes endearingly referred to as “stink beans.” Even the innocuous-sounding fried chicken, cooked in the style of Hat Yai street vendors, is gloriously unique: brined for 24 hours in oyster sauce and lemongrass, fried to a shattering crunch, showered with crispy shallots and served with a dab of sticky-sweet chile sauce.
During my first meal, I literally had to beg the waitresses to let me order something listed on the menu as the “som tum OMG,” an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink spin on green papaya salad made with squid, shrimp, two kinds of crab, fried pork belly, salt-preserved mussels and pla ra, a brackish fermented fish sauce with an appearance and scent evocative of a harbor at low tide.
It was hard to fault my waitress’ skepticism. The concentrated stink alone probably warranted a liability waiver for non-Thais, and I nearly howled when I dribbled a bit of leftover sauce on my jeans the next day, out of concern that I could no longer stand inside enclosed public spaces.
But as ferocious as the flavors can be at Luv2Eat, most dishes come balanced with an appropriate touch of mellow. For a few dollars extra, that mound of funky papaya salad arrived encircled with mix-and-match accompaniments: mushrooms, sour sausage, fishcake, chicharron, carrots, raw cabbage, bean sprouts and hard-boiled eggs.
More intricate is the spicy shrimp-paste fried rice combo, which tames the muskiness of its namesake ingredient with steamed vegetables, a whole fried mackerel that’s been air-dried and lightly salted, and two opposing dipping sauces, one a lime-soaked shrimp-paste dip called nam prik gapi, the other made from tiny shards of pork braised in palm sugar until they dissolve into sweet, meat-infused syrup. No section of the tongue was left unstimulated.
As you’d imagine, L.A.’s Thai community (if not the general foodie public) was quick to catch on when the restaurant opened last September, attracting the attention of the Thai newspapers, Thai cable-access shows and a flurry of orange-robed Buddhist monks who regularly show up on weekends.
All of this has transpired while Luv2Eat has managed to simultaneously provide plates of serviceable pad see ew for couples who got lost looking for the Hollywood Wax Museum. It’s an odd mix. You probably will wait for a table. Your food probably will take longer than expected. No one, especially the multigenerational families that occupy long tables in the center of the room, seems to mind.
At the center of Luv2Eat are Noree Pla and Fern Kaewtathip, chefs and business partners who decamped from Hoy-Ka Thai Noodle last year to open their own restaurant. The duo grew up as childhood friends in Phuket, eating the same spice-forward cuisine that became the bedrock for their menu at Luv2Eat. While Kaewtathip helms the kitchen, Pla usually works the front of the house, pushing her house-made desserts ranging from a custardlike cappuccino pudding to fresh durian simmered with coconut milk and sticky rice, both addictive in totally different ways.
For Pla, opening in the heart of Thai Town is her eventual dream — but for now slinging fresh longan juice instead of Singha (they don’t have a liquor license at Luv2Eat) inside an overlooked strip mall is just fine.
Much like at Jitlada — long considered the standard-bearer of rarefied Southern Thai cooking in L.A. — you get the sense that Luv2Eat’s roster of regional dishes will grow alongside Pla and Kaewtathip’s culinary ambition. A couple of weeks ago, Pla’s Instagram touted pla ra–doused green mango salad as a new special, thanks to the firm-fleshed fruit popping up at local markets. A few days later it was landing on seemingly every other table in town.
Even as that list of specials expands, it’s hard to imagine besting that obsession-worthy crab curry, adapted from a recipe by Pla’s mother and ladled into generous-sized soup bowls. Murky, earthy and stained with turmeric, it’s a curry that hums with the power of a jet turbine and the finesse of an Apple Watch, fueled by radioactive levels of heat and subtle layers of sweet, salty and sour that creep down the back of the throat. You loudly slurp the poached meat from the bisected crab body. You toss in a few sprigs of herbs, some chopped long beans and sweet daikon pickles. You peel off braids of bouncy rice noodles called kanom jeen from a tangled bundle, as you would with one of those packaged mozzarella sticks, and use it to soak up as much liquid as possible.
Some assembly is required — quite a bit, actually — but if you’re willing to sniff out oddball Thai cooking in the middle of Hollywood, you probably won’t mind getting your fingers a little messy.
LUV2EAT THAI BISTRO | 6660 W. Sunset Blvd., Hollywood | (323) 498-5835 | luv2eatthai.com | Daily, 11 a.m.-midnight | Entrees $8-$18.50 | No alcohol