As a food writer, it’s heresy to say you don’t eat a certain kind of food. That’s why it’s more than a little embarrassing to admit that I don’t like most Asian cuisine. Japanese in all of its sushi-ramen-yakitori glory is fine by me, but pretty much everything else is out. It’s not that I refuse to eat it, it’s just that I’ll never willingly order it on my own. I’ve never opted for take-out Chinese on a Sunday night. I’ve never felt compelled to sit down for a bowl of pho. And I’ve never had a hankering for pad thai. Until now.
It all started in a gym – DogTown CrossFit, to be exact. It’s where I go to try to counteract the effects of 10-course meal after 10-course meal (woe is me). A few months back, a familiar face started working out at DogTown: Chef Jet Tila. You may have seen him battling Morimoto on Iron Chef America or getting shouted-out by Giada for his drunken noodles on Best Thing I Ever Ate. He’s now manning the stoves at The Charleston in Santa Monica, and pretty soon there’s going to be a lot more Jet Tila in everyone’s lives.
I knew Jet through a friend and, while we weren’t exactly best buddies, we were friendly enough to say what’s up and chat for a few minutes every time we saw each other. The more we worked out (read: cried) near each other, the more we talked. One day when I casually mentioned that I wasn’t the world’s biggest fan of Thai food, he threw a kettlebell at my head. Okay, okay, the kettlebell part isn’t exactly true, but after unsuccessfully trying to defend my position (“I’m just not into curry…”), Jet insisted on showing me around Los Angeles’ Thai Town – his Thai Town.
We start at noon on a Wednesday. There are six of us in total – three writers and three chefs, all hungry dudes ready to see Thai Town from an insider’s perspective. Luckily, you can’t find a more perfect person to lead a Thai Town Crawl than Jet. He grew up here, long before it actually became Thai Town (it became officially sanctioned in 1999). Back in 1972, Jet’s father opened the first Thai market in the United States here, which means that Jet’s practically the Prince of Thai Town.
Our first stop is Ruen Pair, a non-descript strip mall restaurant off of Hollywood Blvd. Jet checks everyone’s spice tolerance and then orders in Thai. He turns to us midway through ordering. “Do you guys eat tripe?” My hopefulness fades. Have I intentionally walked into hell? Jet orders a special drink for me and tells the waitress not to bring out the can so I won’t know what it is. I instantly expect tripe juice. Is that a thing? I hope not. The drink comes. It’s bright yellow. The urine jokes begin. I take a sip. Oh wow. It’s slightly floral, pleasantly sweet, and incredibly refreshing. What am I drinking? Chrysanthemum iced tea. Jet says they sell it in plastic bags on the street in Thailand. I immediately want to be in Phuket with a non-stop supply of this stuff. So far, so good.
The food arrives and, for our initial stop, it’s a lot. Two orders of fried and marinated pork jerky (moo dat deow), two papaya salads with tiny dried shrimp (som tum), and one plate of stewed tripe (dung poo). The tripe is a hit with almost everyone. They actually seem to have tempered the gaminess quite a bit, but at the end of the day, tripe is tripe and I’m not a tripe lover. Jet describes it as having the texture of squid and he’s right, but that’s not necessarily a good thing in my opinion. I like when squid has the texture of squid. I’d prefer if the tripe was invisible. The papaya salad and pork jerky, on the other hand, more than made up for the tripe.
“Thais eat by the restaurant,” Jet tells us. “If you want papaya salad, you go to Ruen Pair.” After taking a bite, it made sense. Ruen Pair’s papaya salad is an excellent balance of the holy quadrant of classic Thai flavors: spicy, sour, salty and sweet. While the salad is really solid, the number-one stunner is actually the pork jerky. This is no Slim Jim. Thick chunks of pork are fried and marinated in a sort of mystery umami bath to create little flavor bombs that would be equally comfortable on a plate with lettuce wraps, or in a burrito with some sticky rice and spicy fish sauce. Even though we all know that we have four more stops, both plates of jerky are completely gone by the time we leave. If another plate showed up, that would have disappeared, too.
In an effort to cut down on travel time, Jet makes the executive decision to hit a nearby bakery to stockpile desserts for after lunch. Bhan Kanom Thai is in the same strip mall as Ruen Pair, so it’s just a quick walk across the parking lot. Jet stops me before I set foot inside and smiles as he says “your nose is about to get a handjob.” I was intrigued, as my nose hasn’t gotten any kind of job in years.
His sentiments were spot on. The smell of sugar hits you as soon as you walk in and all of a sudden you’re in this Thai sugar fantasy where coconut milk, rice, bananas and palm sugar combine to form a sort of Captain Planet of dessert. Jet goes nuts and buys roughly half the items in the store including some coconut rice fritters (kanom krok) that still haunt my dreams.
After our sugar rush detour, we head to Hoy Ka Noodle for their eponymous Hoy Ka noodle soup. Hoy Ka means “dangling feet,” which will come in handy if I ever see kids sitting on a bridge in Bangkok. The soup itself seems like the creation of an overzealous grandma at a Thai buffet. Inside is ground pork, pork liver, pork ball, fish cake, Chinese BBQ pork, dried shrimp, green beans, bean sprouts, scallions and dried chilis. The broth is fairly unusual. It’s sour, but not overwhelmingly so.
Jet adds fish sauce to mine to balance out the flavors a little more. While the pork jerky and papaya salad at Ruen Pair brought me a step closer to Thai Food Acceptance (TFA), the soup is doing the opposite. I’ve never had the inclination to eat pork ball and fish cake before. Those feelings have not changed. It may be partly because two people at the table have launched into a discussion of why there’s no congealed blood in the soup. They talk as if that’s the magic ingredient that’s missing. If I never hear the phrase “congealed blood” again in my life, I’d happily eat another pork ball.
On the way to our next stop, I see a sign for a$3 haircut. After briefly debating the pros and cons, I decide against it. Ten minutes of happy ending jokes later, we arrive at Yai, in yet another strip mall. Yai bills itself as Thai-Chinese on their menu, but Jet assures us that it’s pure Thai. In fact, Jet’s really excited to be here, which becomes evident when five different dishes hit the table. My stomach is angry at me, and I’ll pay for that later.
Our bounty consists of crab fried rice (cow pad poo), crispy pork belly with Chinese broccoli (moo krob), five-spice pork leg, steamed seafood curry (har mok talay) and a catfish salad that didn’t appear to contain any catfish — nor did it look like a salad. These are the final lessons in my Thai food education, and I intend to be some sort of Thai Food Valedictorian.
At this point, it’s all a blur of mildly spicy retrospection. The crispy pork belly is a perfect example of the protein. I’ll never understand how they can pack so many different textures into one tiny square of pork. The seafood curry is unlike anything I’ve ever had – a kind of curry custard seafood landmine that explodes every time someone takes a forkful. The weaponry comparison is appropriate because by the time we finish, the table looks like the carnage from a blown-up Thai food court. I’m full and I’m happy. Who am I?
There’s one more stop on the Tila Thai Tour: Bangkok Market. The place that started Jet’s lifelong relationship with food and the embodiment of all that I fear with Asian cuisine. If you’re Thai in Los Angeles, this is where you shop. Jet leads me around and shows me all kinds of things I’ve never seen before. Jars of shrimp paste line the shelves near fresh bamboo shoots and gingko nuts. Pork loaf, Chinese sausage and a package of purplish meat labeled “miscellaneous” sit uneasily near each other in a refrigerated case. Four hours ago, I would have recoiled at how foreign everything seemed. Now, I’m wondering if they sell any pork jerky.
I leave the store with a bottle of sriracha. Not the Huy Fong “Rooster” brand that’s made in Rosemead, CA. This is the real deal. The kind Huy Fong based their sauce on, Jet tells me. I take it home and feel proud to know that I’m going to use it. I don’t know when, but I know the day is coming when I pick up the phone and actually order Thai food. Because, as of this moment, the impossible has happened. I can actually say that I like Thai food. Now who wants to make me like Chinese?
Ruen Pair, 5257 Hollywood Boulevard, Los Angeles, 323-466-0153
Bhan Kanom Thai, 5271 Hollywood Boulevard, Los Angeles, 323-871-8030
Hoy Ka Noodle, 5401 Hollywood Boulevard, Los Angeles, 323-463-1339
Yai, 5757 Hollywood Boulevard, Los Angeles, 323-462-0292
Bangkok Market, 4757 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles, 323-662-9705