This is going to be a long(er) read. After all, everyone got the more fun read earlier via Tasting Table.
Thai Town has been in some type of lull since Darabar Secret Thai settled into its groove. The clubby restaurant is lovely at night — to slurp khao soi, to pick at kaeng som pae sa while sipping on some scotch and juice. Pailin is still grooving along, doing its mix of Northern and Issan cuisine. Thai Town Plaza old-hand Ganda has been pushed out by Pa-Ord, and that’s a downright shame. I always loved visiting Ganda later in the the evening, over Palms, over Ruen Pair. It always made me feel like I belonged with the prols of Thai Town, not the ritzy kids going to do it up at Hollywood Thai’s karaoke. Alas, things ebb and things flow. Crispy Pork Gang is barely surviving, and really depends on the night crowd to sustain its insane hour (and equally insane rent). There is lip given to some other hip Thai restaurant with hip, tatted cooks, there is some lip given to some Thai-American TV personality. Emporium Thai is still trying as hard as ever to knock-off Jitlada, and Jitlada is still churning out some of the illest Thai food in America under the right conditions. However, there hasn’t been much genuine excitement to really tickle the hounds.
Good thing the noshing highlight of Thai Town so far this year aren’t the relocations (of the duelling Pa-Ord and Hoy-Ka, who hate each other). It’s the quiet bang made by the opening of Lacha Somtum. My Thai comprehension is non-existent, except to barely discern the difference between guay jap and kuai tieu reu when listening to a native.
When I listened to Lacha’s waitress’ translation of the specials menu (above) board the first time, I did not flinch as it didn’t sound impressive. Until I got home.
“Mushroom soup with egg” became “ant egg mushroom soup”. OK. Why did she pull back the punches? From the regular menu, tamarind pork rib soup was indeed the Isan regional soup queen, tom sap. And it goes on, and on, and on. The bamboo “salad” (not under the bamboo “som tum”) is the proverbial Isan/Laos bamboo salad with roasted rice powder known as soop nor mai. Kaeng om (below) is available with chopped cornish hen instead of the typical lame chicken breast.
This changes everything. And of all the kaeng oms available in LA (Cancoon, Yai, Luum Ka Naad, etc.), Lacha’s reigns. This is clearly not just a papaya salad restaurant as the name claims.
Larp ped (above) is geotagged with “Kon Kaen”, the education and economic center of Isan province. This larp ped is undeniable the most interesting duck larp “salad” in LA right now. The shredded duck meat carries carries a light crisp from being confited first, and is topped with the typical Isan style roasted rice powder. It is deliriously good, and at $10, is enough to serve four people during a meal as an appetizer course.
Every thing is just a bit twisted.
Out of the entire som tum menu, there are a couple of caveats, or, really intriguing things, depending on the perspective. Som tum “tum mua” can be translated to som tum garbage, or “kitchen sink”. It is the most offensive of the som tums on the menu, even more so than the “combination”. The chef throws bits of everything from the mis en place into the stank papaya salad (with pla ra, not with regular fish sauce), including mussel, bamboo shoot, long green bean, Thai egg plant, and rice noodles. There’s no escaping the funk if one decides to actually pick from this particular plate. Everything is borderline rancid, and there’s no taming the heat with the khanom jeen noodles, which are often served on the side of a typical Bangkok som tum specialist. There’s something rather Pollack (or, schizophrenic and amazing) about this salad. It’s like a Thai bibimbap, but avant garde and of actual culinary importance. However, like modern art, som tum tum mua is difficult to understand, especially to the typical farang Thai-food n00b. Better then, are the more “traditional” som tum Thai variations with simple fish sauce, and not fermented fish sauce. The puffy shredded fried catfish topping Thai style som tum is a great mix of two fun eats so accepted by Bangkokers — sorry, couldn’t help it — these days. But why stick to Thai som tum (typically over sweetened for Thai-American palates), when there’s this bamboo gloriousness:
From the som tum (which simply means “mixed”) menu, this is the highlight for me. Crunchy, refreshing whole shoots of bamboo, mixed with the fresh brininess of the blue crab. The black crab version, according to the waitress, is even too salty for her. I think I chose wisely. The alternating texture of the crunchy shoots, followed by the soft gooeyness of the raw crab flesh which one had to extra from the shells by sucking and knawing, is an oral pleasure that is probably only matched in the back rooms of Thai massage parlors. Couple this with a tub of sticky rice, a plate of some larp, and a proverbial Issan-Laos lunch is served.
A typical Lao meal is eaten around a low set table, with mixed item “salads”, crudites, some stews or soup (kaengs/non-coconutted curries) and some form of grilled fish/seafood. Any discussion of Lacha offering the “crab” pad Thai listed under “specialties” is basically hog wash. Lacha is also a bit short on the palate-easing soups so known in the Issan traditon. The noodle menu is also rather tame, except for one dish: the khanom jeen nam ya – basically, a Thai “dipping”/”mix-in” noodle with fish stew and crudites (dill, mint, etc.)
With the advent of canned/jarred nam ya curry paste at the grocery, and the commonality of canned tuna in America, it is ridiculously easy to make this Southern Thai dish. Jitlada’s is fiercely spicy. Lacha’s? Aptly named “Super Spicy”. It is undeniably spicier than the kua kling curry(s) at Jitlada. I was never down with Jitlada’s dynamite challenge, but this little plate of noodles offered so much pleasure, then pain, then regret, that it’ll probably become the most important dish, under $10, of 2014 (besides Michael Lee’s aged brisket sandwich I’m currently consuming). The sour mustard accoutrement is suppose to assist in cooling. It doesn’t help worth a damn, neither does the cabbage.
Lacha also does kaeng right. The kaeng nor mai is jammed full of thickening ya nang leaves. It’s also rather funky, but in an earthy, not so briny way. It’s grassy, spicy, gratifying in a way no common Penang curry can ever be. Bamboo shoots is then main game here, just like soop “nor mai” (bamboo). Northwest Laos and northeast Thais must have really regular bowl movements. The kaeng om comes with hearty vegetables, and served alone over rice, makes a rice bowl that makes anything everything coming out of Chego look like stoner food for rubes. Kaeng is stew for the Asian gods. Korean ramen pots are remnants of an U.S. occupation that forced force meat onto a war-torn that just didn’t know any better. One tastes of the Silk Road. The other tastes like msg-infused imperialism.
The kaeng som, typically served in LA Thai town with whole fish, is also stellar. Sourness dominates, but it’s balanced with spiciness instead of sugariness. It’s difficult to say which version (whether Lacha or Darabar) rules supreme, but it does show Lacha is well versed in kaeng. We should just be happy.
However, Lacha is not without bombs. The fried pork larp, a tangy, salty, crispy ball of porcine goodness at Pailin, tastes like a balled up mess of random pig parts (ear for sure). The entire noodle section is weak, without gway chap, the Laos/chinese soy rice noodle sheets so commonly found in Issan street markets. Still, what’s the alternative for LA Thai food right now? Overpriced nam priks being served by tatted kids paired with shitty Thai rum carrying a 400% markup? Feh to that.
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