There are days when I realise how much I love being a Chowhound in L.A., and more specifically, in the San Fernando Valley. We don't have the fancy high-end restaurants of the "other side of the hill", but there is chow that happens here and nowhere else in the city -- or country -- ethnic chow, the chow of the people who really do all the work.
It's the middle of September, it's 80 degrees outside, I've just finished playing a tennis match, I'm dressed in hopped-up gym clothes, and I'm starving hungry.
Enter the Wat Thai, the Thai Buddhist temple of Los Angeles. It's on Coldwater Canyon Avenue, one block south of Roscoe Boulevard, right where Tracthomelandia peters out into auto body shops, "gentlemen's clubs", factories and the ugly (but tasty) gash which is Sherman Way.
Every weekend, rain or shine, vendors come and set up stalls on the north side of the temple. They sell Thai food at ridiculously low prices, and donate a portion (or, in some cases, all) of their profits to the temple. Orange-clad monks wander around, accepting alms, the temple itself smokes with incense, and the crowds can be considerable. Parking is difficult; park on the streets in the tract behind the temple. The residents must be accustomed to it; it happens every weekend.
The first thing you do is go to the token booth, located at the end of the parking lot, right in the middle of the booths. Cash is not exchanged at the food booths. Yellow tokens are 50c each; green, $1; red, $2. I have seen people changing hundred-dollar bills, which boggles the mind. I changed $20.
Then, stand in line. In some cases, more than one booth will carry the same line of food. It's easy to tell which is preferred as it will have the longer line.
I stood in line for papaya salad -- with everything. Shredded papaya, fish sauce, palm sugar, lime juice, green beans, tomatoes, dried shrimp, peanuts, blue crab, and chilies. It's a huge plate of food, pounded in a mortar right in front of you and handed to you ten seconds after it's been made, along with shredded cabbage to soften the kick of the chilies and provide some texture. It costs $3, plus a dollar for a big plate of sticky rice. The same money will also buy you green-mango salad or bamboo-shoot salad, all prepared the same way. It is, far and away, the best papaya salad in the city. You can't get better at Renu Nakorn, nor at Krua, nor at Thai Nakorn, nor at Ayara. I've tried. If I ever move away, my nostalgia food is going to be papaya salad from the Wat Thai.
At the same booth is a separate line for grilled meats... nam, which is pork loaf, grilled pork, grilled chicken, grilled beef, grilled sour Thai sausage, all $1 per skewer. Fish balls and shrimp balls are available for $2 per skewer. Each comes with sweet sauce. I bought two sour sausage and a chicken skewer. Note that you can order skewers from the papaya salad line, but not the other way round; the ladies are firm about this, because the papaya salad line is longer and slower. While the chicken was delicious, the sour sausage was a revelation -- tender, with just the right "snap" from the casing, and an odd sweet-sour-spicy taste that just can't be described.
Next door is a place that serves traditional curries. I don't mean beef in red-coloured curry sauce out of a can. We're talking serious curry here. I bought a country (sour) curry, which comes steamed in a banana leaf. It's actually somewhat gelatinous, but it conceals the most tender fish you've ever tasted. $3, once again. The taste is so sour and so spicy I almost can't finish it -- almost -- but it's so good that I eat the rice from my papaya salad and manage.
One of the beautiful things about Thailand is the simplicity of their sweets. There aren't complicated concoctions involving flour and butter and sugar. Sweet fruit and a LOT of coconut tend to be the watchwords. There were three booths today selling sticky rice with mangoes. $3 gets you an entire mango, peeled and cut, with a pint of warm sticky rice, a little condiment cup of coconut cream to pour over the top, and a shaking of dried yellow beans (optional, for crunch). $5 gets you two mangos, a quart of rice, and two cups of coconut cream. It's so simple and yet so delicious.
Fried fish cakes, fried taro, fried banana and other fried delicacies can be had for $2 or $3 a bag -- a bag being a dozen pieces, in the case of fried bananas. Despite being under a heat lamp, they are delicious and still crunchy on the outside and soft and sweet in the centre.
Against the wall of the temple, away from the main booths, is one stand marked "Thai Dessert". The older lady in the booth presides over two huge pans, each with 19 depressions in it, and makes kanom krok. A thin batter of rice flour, coconut milk and sugar is poured into each depression, then topped with pure coconut cream. If you like, green onions can be put in the centre of each depression, but I prefer it without. She flicks any "crusties" out of the food (left over from the previous batch), covers the pan with what looks like a trash can lid's more elegant cousin, and leaves it to cook for a few minutes. Using a metal soup spoon, she turns it so it won't stick. She lays the kanom krok in an open tray and admonishes you to let them cool before trying to eat them. The idea is to take two half-moons and smash them together, then eat. The outside is chewy, but the inside is molten and sweet. They're absolutely addicting. Despite the fact that the sign gives the price per 18 "halves", you actually get 19, all for $3.
Finally, I got a cup of longan juice from the drinks booth for $1.50. Chaa yen (Thai iced tea) and kofi yen (Thai iced coffee) are $2; soft drinks are $1; young coconut juice is $1.50.
There are at least ten booths I didn't visit: one sells things like pad Thai, yen ta fo, yen ta fa and pad woon sen; one sells desserts like baked kabocha pumpkin stuffed with coconut pudding, or coconut pudding in banana leaves; one has various kinds of seafood, like Manila clams steamed with mint and chilies.
I gave up, since my wife was waiting at home for the food. (You can sit at tables under canopies, communal tables, eating with others.) I turned in my last yellow token for 50c and headed home.
I love living here.
Wat Thai Los Angeles
8225 Coldwater Canyon Ave.
North Hollywood, CA 91605
Saturdays, Sundays and feast days only, 11 AM - 3 PM