Thai Eureka at Night and Market

IMG_3104I 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.

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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.

Taking Tips from Bourdain’s Book of the Bold

IMG_2262Pork belly nachos

I have been a die hard Anthony Bourdain fan for a decade now. Over that time, I have seen many other food personalities come and go but he’s remained my favorite due to a few key traits. He is actually a literary person so he narrates his travels with a serious wordsmith’s flair. He genuinely cares about places and people in the world beyond the semi-shallow layer of life foodies dwell in. I am one of those foodies but I always appreciate when people show me more than the thick slab of foie, but also the life and times that surround it. When Bourdain delves into politically harsh geographies that aren’t necessarily pretty for television and manages to do so with sensitivity while also showcasing authentic local cuisines, I feel bloated by a well-told and relevant story and not just the copious amounts of food. Lastly, he’s not afraid to dive into the funky stuff, unveil his non-political correctness in a world sterilized by it (especially in food circles) or belly up to the bar fully soaked in his particular vices for all the world to see. That’s human, and oftentimes also leads to being humane.

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 Crab grilled cheese

This past weekend I discovered his show Parts Unknown on my streaming Netflix so I binged on four in a row. I quickly realized that he has also influenced some of my habits and rules surrounding foods, particularly the following:

  1. When in a new territory that you may only visit once, order a bunch of dishes that you want to try without regard to strategy or hunger and try it all.
  2. If you are intrigued by something, then by all means try it no matter what you’ve heard or what stereotype or cultural biases create a conflict upon your table.
  3. Sometimes you hit eureka with a dish you think you will love and sometimes you miss it but the potential delicious discovery around the corner always makes the trying worthwhile.
  4. Go where you want to go, do what you want to do, eat what you want to eat and enjoy the heck out of life while you still have it.
  5. A meal just isn’t a meal without a great glass of wine, compatible cocktail or indigenous liquor and every nation in the world has a distinct version of this.
  6. Don’t always believe the hype but go with your gut when it comes to finding good food.
  7. Never be a snob – real good food can be found just about anywhere.

Never have these rules applied more to me than when it comes to Thai and Thai-fusion style food. Although I love all types of cuisine, Thai food brings out the adventurer in me. Whereas I know what fishes I like with sashimi or general types of pasta and sauce for my Italian restaurant sojourns or the spice mixes in my Indian dishes, etc. when it comes to Thai, I honestly never know what I am going to order until I read the menu.

IMG_2255Fish kidney curry

Two recent examples I tried that ran from one end of the Thai spectrum to the other were the notorious Jitlada in Los Angeles and TLT in Westwood.

IMG_8611Shrine in Jitlada’s restroom

Jitlada has been around for a while and boasts a traditional Thai restaurant environment with the ambience you expect from Thai restaurants: dingy interiors full of ornate ritual tchoctkes on the walls, loads of hipsters sharing steaming pots of Tom Ka Gai, lots of wooden mirrors, and candle and toy shrines in the restrooms. A menu that goes on for days offers anything you could possibly want from traditional pad thai noodles to exotic and strange silkworms to famous, spicy curries that are known for their flame-ability. I chose a chicken pad thai because the Cute Gardener is not a fan of the overly spicy and then I went gonzo by ordering the kidney fish curry which Jonathon Gold touts as one of the top dishes you need to eat before you die. I also picked a simple salad of blanched watercress and braised pork belly. The kidney fish curry definitely stood out with a murky briny funk richened with ground shrimp and red snapper but the egg omelet that accompanied it was too salty to help me relieve my tongue from the all-consuming heat.

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Leftover kidney fish curry on brown rice

Of course, all-consuming heat aside, I still managed to eat the rest of the curry at home the next day atop organic brown rice over a period of two hours so that each bite’s heat would fade before the next. I am one of those people who truly is a glutton for spice punishment, craving its addictive tang when it is done right in dishes like this one.

IMG_2263Chimmy bowl

This past weekend, the CG and I visited TLT after a trek through an exhibition at the Hammer. TLT used to be The Lime Truck, rolling through the streets of L.A. dispersing over-the-top stoner and comfort food to the masses. It became so popular that a brick and mortar was opened, very organic-fast food-style in its streamlined graphics and communal dining room set atmosphere, yet highly impressive with a menu that does a roster of things extremely well and just packs in the customers because of this. The menu is actually more representative of a Thai and street food fusion place with items like pork belly sliders, crab grilled cheese, chimmy (churri) noodles with peanuts and sambal and even chorizo laced breakfast burritos. All of that tasted great, but the coup d’etat for me lay in the pork belly nachos, in which I found my own nacho nirvana. Number one now in my book reigns this basket of on-the-spot fried chips that are puffed and crisped perfectly with no sogginess by the bottom of the pile. These chips come smothered in a luscious sweet cheese sauce, pico de gallo and generous chunks of pork belly cooked tender and juicy with a caramelized bite. A complete surprise.

IMG_2256Thai omelet

Perhaps, these forays into exploratory eating will open up my horizons with other cuisines I love—inspiring me to follow my mental book of Bourdain rules in the French bistro or the gastropub. The taste buds are now itching for the new, the brave, the bold, and the out of the ordinary.