The most graceful of blogditor in LA, Daniela Galarza, in her new role at LA Magazine, beared the world of pain bestowed upon this fair city by James Beard Foundation Awards like a champ. We’re not discussing the literary components of the awards which is akin to the technical awards during the Oscars. The literary awards are won the day before the “A”wards, and LA, which apparently is better as a city of writers than chefs, usually takes a few medals here and there on Sundays. During the restaurant JBFA’s though, LA has been dogged year after year. Some say the LA contenders were undeserving this year. I say the LA finalists are picked to lose year after year. After all, what superman can beat Le Bernardin on its own turf when nominated in the same category. Certainly not anything from Lucque’s empire. And Animal versus the best of San Fran and Napa? Never going to happen. Anyone would predict the proper loss to Incanto and Benu.
However, there’s one James Beard Foundation Restaurant Awards category which truly fails Angelenos: the “American Classics. This year, some gringoed Chinese joint in Sacramento won one of the four available slots. No one knows why except a bunch of State legislators make shady handshaken deals there. The criteria for this category is almost inane — the restaurant has to be classic (which means open for many years — let’s call it 100 and serve “regional” American cuisine. Dear James Beard members, may I offer you one of the finest classic LA dining establishments, if one can call a deli counter in front of a working kitchen contained within a bulk food supply warehouse? It is located within LAX-C Market in Chinatown. It’s not a “food court”, since food court implies there a multitude of vendors surrounded a central eating area. There’s but one vendor, and the chairs invade the aisle space of a Thai cash and carry.
There have been a few reports by “mainstream” LA restaurant bloggers, but not really “get” the depth of steam trays at LAX-C’s food deli, known formally as LAX-C Express. The “deli” portion of the LAX-C Express alone is worth a Saveur mention. During Songkran, they have kanom tian, a savory (and sometimes sweet) little pyramids of sticky, spicy (!) rice wrapped in banana leaf eaten as snacks. Every day, they have house made curry pastes for those too busy making mole with their molcajete. LAX-C Express is far more fascinating than the permanent food stalls that serve satay, papaya salad, and khanom krok by the LAX-C parking lot. LAX-C is a full blown take-out restaurant, and the stuff they have soaking in the kaengs underneath the sneeze guard is far more interesting than 90% of all Thai restaurants in Los Angeles.
There’s Issan-Lao-Chinese style kaeng hang leh, pork knuckle/feet stew jammed with five spice and herbs. There’s now also a fantastic khao man gai. This is the khao man gai that offers the most performance to price ratio in all of LA. A huge molehill of seasoned rice (slightly salty, slightly jasminy, a more fluffier and less al dente than many other Thai versions) sits under slightly more than a quarter pound of mish mashed, skin-in dark chicken meat — white meat is available, mixed is not. A few slices of cucumber insert themselves, in a super Thai style fashion, next to the rice and between the sauce container. Few sprigs of (not very fresh) cilantro adorn the whole schbang. Nothing looks extraordinary until the 2 ounce SOLO sauce holder is popped. This is the perfect Thai khao man gai sauce. It might be the most perfect Hainan chicken sauce ever. Starting with the base of a light sweet soy paste, minced ginger, a bit of acidity and a hint of garlic is added. The texture is perfect as the thickened soy paste adheres to the chicken. But it’s not so thick that it can’t also serve as a rice enhancer. It’s not as sweet as the tamarind-nuoc mam served at Dong Nguyen, and it’s not too salty as Siam Sunset’s (which was previously covered in the Thai Town Khao Man Gai survey).
It doesn’t end there. LAX-C Express is a classic “khao kaeng” / “khao gang” joint as described by Chef McDang. It’s Thai fast food joint that serves a working man’s lunch, to Thai restaurant buyers, in a cash and carry and qualifies as one of those Asian “fast food” joints so loved by Bourdain, except this isn’t Vietnam, it’s Bangkok. And really, as much as I love a bowl of mi quang, there’s no equivalent of a Thai khao kaeng in the Vietnamese foodsphere of LA. The food here isn’t precious, the ingredients are from the market, which is to say, it’s on par with just about every Thai restaurant in Hollywood. LAX-C Express has faults, too. They overcook beef and chicken (except for the khao man gai), just like every Thai restaurant in Hollywood. So go with something more funked. The fish ball has been stewed in the green curry for hours, especially if you go late afternoon. Get that. Kaeng som with a basket full of bamboo shoots is available as part of the pick-3 item bento. Get that. In fact, always get the sour spicy curry, always. Two spice-laden curry & kaengs is just too overwhelming, so go with the bittermelon pork ball bland soup to round off the 3-item combo. Now, a properly done-up bitter melon bland soup should be stuffed with the ground pork, instead of being spotted floating alongside pork balls. However, if Bazaar can deconstruct a sentiment as American as the Philly cheese, then LA ethno-fressers should be able to allow this Thai interpretation, done by Thais, for Thais. Granted, LAX-C’s freezer isles are full of CAFO’d swine and beef, and majority of the seafood is farm raised and shipped frozen from overseas, but this is the fault of the US food system, and doesn’t lower the tasty factor of LAX-C Express. This restaurant using the best ingredients they can, at the price point tolerated and accepted by their clientele, and they’re doing the best they know how, as taught by the generation before them, to these ingredients. Just don’t bitch about the imperfect health department grade and the uncrispy fried catfish upon arrival as the superlative 3-combos are $7, and there’s no tipping. Outside of the Hoy-Ka/Pa-Ord situations, there is no better complete Thai meal for a single-person (or a starving babysitting parent) on a lazy Saturday. NB: order the pre-stir fried noodle dishes at your at risk. Don’t be stupid about it.