As I walked inside the store, I heard a familiar greeting.
“Sawadee Ka,” said the attendant while bowing slightly with palms pressed together. I returned the greeting with a smile on my face.
It took me several minutes to browse among the oodles of interesting stuff. Elephants in many colors and materials were displayed next to figures of the Grand Palace and other notorious buildings.
I abandoned the store since my nose caught some notes of garlic and galangal. The aroma took me to a small, unassuming café where curvy characters describe the name of the place.
I was received with more courtesy and prompt attention. A menu printed in white cardboard was given to me. At least, all the items are listed in English because I have no idea how to interpret the Thai alphabet. As a matter of fact, the sounds on the restaurant were all foreign to me.
“The order is going to take 15 minutes,” announced the waitress.
“No problem,” I said satisfied. I like when my food is prepared at the moment.
While waiting, I took a look at my surroundings. There are about 10 photos of the king next to the register. One of the refrigerators is visible to the public. I have never seen so many ingredients packed in such a small space.
A young man enters and exits the restaurant selling fresh flower garlands (Phuang Malai). He only addresses some patrons in Thai. I guess he knows the locals.
The smells coming from the kitchen were really intense. Customers were slurping their soups, tossing their noodles and enjoying their papaya salads.
Once my food arrives, I get amazed at the size of the plate. I wasn’t expecting that big of a portion for the small price paid.
The first bite transported me back to Thailand. Wait. Rewind a little bit. All this sounded like I was describing one of my adventures in the Kingdom of Siam.
But no. Everything I have just described happened here, in my hometown, Los Angeles.
I am proud to say Los Angeles has the only Thai ethnic neighborhood in the United States. We call it simply Thai Town. The area contains many restaurants, markets, shops, silk clothing stores and massage parlors.
It all started in the 60s when many Thais moved to Los Angeles in search of educational opportunities. Today, about 80,000 Thais live in Los Angeles, making it the largest population outside of the Kingdom. And what a coincidence, both Los Angeles and Bangkok are known as “The City of Angels.”
The neighborhood is compact enough to walk around (six blocks). Even though the area is tiny, it can bring new surprises every time it is visited. Also, it is possible to try dishes that are not usually found in Thai restaurants that appeal to the palate of the general public (many Thai restaurants in other areas serve the same dishes).
Let me clarify something. Despite the fact that we have this unique gem within the big city, even though it is located in Hollywood Boulevard (yes, where the stars shine on the sidewalk), hard core foodies like Anthony Bourdain have filmed here and tours to show you around can go for $100, not a lot of people (and I am referring to locals) know about this place.
So, I am giving you the heads up. If you are a local, check out the area. If you are visiting Los Angeles, I can bet you are going to visit Hollywood (why?). Moving east a few blocks can give you the chance to taste food a hundred times better than what you are going to find close to the Kodak Theater (now is known as Dolby Theater).
Here are some recommendations on what to do in the area.
Most of the attractions in the neighborhood are food related and this is a great thing to say (do you agree?).
Last time I visited, I ate at Sapp Coffee Shop (5183 Hollywood Blvd). This is one of the places where Anthony Bourdain ate when he filmed one of his shows. The shop is known for its jade noodles (their green color comes from spinach) topped with roasted duck, sweet pork and shredded crab, scallions, cilantro, peanuts, dry chili mixture and a pinch of salt. They nail the combination of sweet, spicy, sour and crunchy.
My husband ordered a special consisting of half Thai BBQ chicken, shrimp fried rice and soup. Yes, it took 15 minutes to arrive (we were notified) but we felt happy to have fresh food on the table. The flavors were incredible (and my husband is not a big chicken lover).
The menu in this restaurant is extensive. Think boat noodles, larb, catfish salad, sen chun phad pu. Well, you get the idea.
I have also visited a restaurant called Crispy Pork Gang and Grill (5253 Hollywood Blvd). This place does not rank high with connoisseurs of good food but I like it because I have found a dish I love at a good price, morning glory salad. For this dish, the morning glory (a semi aquatic plant) is deep fried and topped with pork, shrimp, red onions and a sauce made of limes, sugar, white vinegar, fish sauce, chili and peanuts. The combination of flavors transport me to Sukhothai were I first tried this dish.
Here are some other suggestions in terms of restaurants:
– Red Corner Asia (5267 Hollywood Blvd) – Thai angels wings
– Ruen Pair (5257 Hollywood Blvd) – Experts swear this place makes the best papaya salad in town
– Original Sanamluang Café (5176 Hollywood Blvd) – Spicy basil stirred fried and duck noodle soup
Take a look at the Discover Los Angeles’ Thai Town Guide for more restaurant recommendations and descriptions.
The classic, and almost obligatory, stop to satisfy your sweet tooth is Bhan Kanom Thai (5271 Hollywood Blvd). When you enter the store, a sugary fragrance relaxes you. The most delicious treats are waiting to be devoured.
Let me give you an idea of what they offer: bananas, cassava and pumpkin in coconut milk, natural ice cream, taro cakes flavored with corn and shredded coconut, pandan dumplings coated with coconut and filled with mung bean, custardy grilled coconut cups, sticky rice patties with coconut milk. This is just a partial list.
Their shelves contain dozens of good. There is a counter from where you can order the fresh stuff they prepare in house daily. Don’t miss this store. I would go to Thai Town just to stop here.
Don’t go home empty handed. Browse thru the local markets in search of tasty goodies to enjoy from the comfort of your house. Last time I visited, I bought cookies, seasoning to make Tom Ka and Tom Yum and coconut custards.
You can take a look at the following markets:
– Bangluck Market (5170 Hollywood Blvd)
– Silom Market (5321 Hollywood Blvd)
– Bangkok Market (4757 Melrose Avenue)
Gifts / Souvenirs
Siam Book Center (5178 Hollywood Blvd) has a good selection of cooking books, movies and interesting articles.
Massage and other beauty treatments
I haven’t personally visited any of these businesses in the area. Therefore, I do not feel in the position to make recommendations since this involves more serious issues. I saw places offering very good prices ($35 per hour). Do some research or ask around if you are interested in these services.
– Thai Town is located in Eastern Hollywood (Hollywood Boulevard between Western and Normandie).
– The neighborhood is located very close to Hollywood’s Walk of Fame (about 2 miles east).
– If traveling by Metro, use the Hollywood / Western stop to visit Thai Town.
– Don’t expect glamour and glitz because this area is in Hollywood. The restaurants and shops are located in simple strip malls and the interiors are unassuming. But these are the places where good food is cooked, right?
– Go prepared with cash. Some places do not accept debit or credit cards.
– Strip malls offer free parking. Parking spaces on the street have meters.
– Companies such as melting pots offer food tours of the neighborhood. The downside is that these tours are expensive ($100 per person for four hours).
– It would be great to have an idea of what you want to eat. The options are mind blowing. Locals can visit the area many times in order to try different dishes.
– If you have questions, just ask. Everybody around here is very nice.
Hope this post inspires you to visit one of the many ethnic neighborhoods in Los Angeles.
Do you have any recommendation for Thai Town?