I was desperate at twenty and the mother of a toddler when I strolled into one of the restaurants in my town largely populated by gay male patrons. The owner took one look at me in my metallic fuchsia sandals, bad nineties highlighted bangs and earnest smile and gave me a job as waitress. I didn’t have experience, or enough years on me to legally be a bartender, but I ended up mixing cocktails on the spot as well. The restaurant was named after the rainbow and I would show up at five, study the bartender’s guide, slap on an apron and start serving the 20 or so patrons who came regularly to eat at the tiny, gourmet fusion place way ahead of its time where I was voraciously trying to make ends meet.
I learned a lot of things in that job. I learned that old Mr. Green came nightly for the poached salmon whether or not it was on the menu and when he was done with his first vodka on ice with a lime wedge he would tip me twenty bucks if I poured him a second without bringing it up in conversation. I learned how to carry loaded plates like a pro. I learned that our sous chef worked better on methamphetamine. And the best thing of all I learned was how to appreciate authentic Thai food.
Our cook was from Thailand—an eighty-year-old woman named Lao who spent her evenings at the rainbow restaurant making cod with gravy and Brussels sprouts du jour. But at the end of the evening, she would take out her spice satchel and utilize any leftover ingredients from the night’s menu to whip up some Thai favorites for all of us staff to share. One of my favorite dishes was rice with green chili curry strewn with crisp green beans, minced red bell peppers, jicama strips and basil. I would take it home and eat it slowly, one bite every ten minutes, enough time to let my mouth cool down. After washing each bite down with milk or Thai tea (sent home to accompany the dish), I would be ready for more. I had never eaten Thai food before but became hooked on the boiling tang that Lao would serve me nightly.
After that time I learned many more things about Thai food. I learned I could find a decent pad Thai or mango with sticky rice or tom kha gai soup in just about any strip mall in Southern California but that really good curries and larbs were harder to uncover. I learned where the best beef and lime salads lived and that San Francisco had some of the best fried noodle salads on the planet.
When I moved to LA I was looking forward to finding a good Thai restaurant but it took me a good five years to do so. The Cute Gardener is not a fan of Thai food mostly because it makes him sweat. But being the pro researcher and nice boyfriend that he is, he has done his due diligence, taking me to all the prerequisite places like Jitlada and Sticky Rice, joints which Jonathon Gold, Zagat and all other respected foodie media sources have publicly extolled. Jitlada boasted an exhaustive menu and the exotic novelty of a fish kidney soup but beyond that the rest of their food was either too salty or bland. Sticky Rice served up a comfort food style Hainanese chicken and rice that was plain and homey and appealing to hipsters looking for that kind of thing at the bustling Grand Central Market but my taste buds were yearning for more—I wanted authentic not white-washed, simple not artisan and yummy rather than exotically creative.
Finally, I found Thai food eureka last week at Night and Market – a street food joint tucked into the back of the more elegant Talesai. Over a fried pigtail that could easily become my favorite bar food, I learned that the 30-something chef and owner grew up in his family’s Talesai and started Night and Market to serve more convenient type, quick and easy Thai in smaller portions to people looking for a good time and food that could facilitate camaraderie and drinking. Next came a small plate of cold pork larb. But the highlight of the night was a beautifully earthy and just slightly sweet gaeng hanglay – a Burmese curry of fatty pork belly braised and accented with pickled garlic, ginger and tamarind. I barely touched the perfect coconut sticky rice with the dish, and lifted the bowl to my lips at the end to drink what was left of the broth. The menu is not silly large but I definitely need to go back to try the rest of the items (and for much more of that curry that is seriously good enough to drink). For all intensive purposes I can rest assured that I have found my go-to Thai in Los Angeles and need look no further.