There's always a lot of discussion about the Wat Thai, and I know at least one person (elmomonster?) wrote a review a while back with photos, but I haven't seen a review on here.
Drivers on the border of North Hollywood and Arleta, off the 170 freeway at Roscoe, see a shiny gold building as they drive down Coldwater Canyon Avenue. It's red and gold, with ornate decoration. This is the centre of Theravada Buddhism in Southern California, and it is called Wat Thai Los Angeles.
On weekends, some fifteen to twenty food vendors set up shop in tents and makeshift buildings in the parking lot north of the temple. People go to pay their respects, light incense and pray in the temple, and then come out and dine on LA's answer to Thai street food.
The system is simple; pay your respects inside the temple if you're so inclined (it's a bit rude to go in reeking of food, as though eating were more important than praying), then go to the booth near the centre of the lot and exchange money for plastic tokens -- red tokens are $2, green are $1, yellow are 50¢. Then get on lines at the various booths and order what you like.
To start with, there are usually two booths with various noodles and soups. No tom yum here, they have glass noodle soup with duck or pork, yen ta fo (noodles and vegetables in red soup), yen to fu (dry-cooked tofu and noodles), pad thai, Vietnamese clear-noodle soup, pork blood soup, etc. Nothing costs more than $4.
There are two booths right next to each other that specialise in grilled meats and papaya salad. Place an order of som tum and a lady with a large mortar and pestle will scoop papaya, chilies, sugar, fish sauce, soy sauce, tomatoes, green beans, peanuts, dried shrimp and blue crab into her mortar and pound it fresh for you. A couple of minutes later, you have a quart of som tum along with cabbage to cut the spiciness -- for $3. Skewers of meat are $1 or $2 (shrimp balls and pork meatloaf are $2, everything else is $1) and come with sweet chili sauce for dipping. (The place that also sells bamboo salad is the better choice.)
There's a place that sells fried banana and taro ($2 for 10 pieces of either, or mix-and-match), a place that sells crispy seafood pancakes, a place to get chicken larb, and a place to buy red curry with duck.
Then there's dessert. There are no fewer than three places that sell sticky rice with mango -- any of them is fine. $3 gets you a pint of rice with one Philippine mango; $5 gets you a quart and two mangoes. Of course, you get a little pot of coconut milk to pour over the rice, and some places will also give you dried yellow beans for a little crunch.
Down almost at the end is a Thai ice cream place that in summer has the longest line, especially when they make durian and lychee ice cream. At the very end is a place that sells various desserts, including sweet rice and fruit wrapped in banana leaves ($1.50 or $2) and my wife's favourite, a quarter of a baked kabocha squash filled with coconut pudding.
Across from the main line of stands, actually up against the temple itself, is my favourite -- the lady who makes kanom krok. Kanom krok are little Thai pancakes made from coconut-rice batter. They're made in pans with little half-moon holes in them, like Danish æbleskiver or Indian appam. When you place an order, the old woman running the stand greases and then pours batter into the holes. She then holds down a lid over the device so the kanom krok will cook. She loosens them with a spoon and lets them cook just a bit more. She then layers them in a tray for you. It's for you to put two of them together so they form a sphere. This is the ultimate in Thai street food. It's incredibly labour-intensive and, at $3 for 19 "halves" (it says 18 but her pan makes 19), it's the best value going. You can have various things put in -- corn, green onions, dried shrimp -- but I like them best just plain. Crispy on the outside, a little chewy further in, and gooey and delicious in the centre, it's one of those foods you'll learn to crave.
Just west of the temple, on the street, are the vendors who couldn't or wouldn't pay the temple for the right to set up shop -- you can get tremendous deals on plants and fresh fruit, and you pay cash rather than tokens.
There are the usual suspects for drinks -- young coconut juice ($1), Thai iced tea ($1), soda ($1), and long communal tables at which to sit. If you see an empty space, smile, greet the people on either side ("sawatdee khap" if you're male, "sawatdee kha" if you're female), sit and eat. On busy weekends you will want to bring a pad so you can sit on the ground.
The booths run every weekend and are set up between 11 and 11:30 AM; if you get there much after 3:00 PM some will have shut down, and by 5:00 PM everything is gone.
Parking is difficult; there is very limited parking at the temple itself and you will have to stack-park, which is a pain. Just south and west of the temple is a residential neighbourhood whose inhabitants are used to the scrum and the lack of parking; park anywhere it's legal and walk up to the temple.
Wat Thai Los Angeles
8225 Coldwater Canyon Ave.
North Hollywood, CA 91605