All Thai'd Out in Venice - A Scientific Study
Hi, I'm a long time reader and have gotten a lot of great leads on this board and so wanted to contribute something as an expression of gratitude.
In the past few weeks, I have conducted a scientific review of almost every Thai restaurant that delivers to my apartment in Venice. It was a difficult and arduous task--having to sit on my couch and wait for the delivery to arrive, sometimes up to 45 minutes, and often ordering from two places on the same night and having to eat two dinners. But worth the sacrifice in the name of science. I took brief notes which I am including below. You're welcome to go straight to them....
...or you can indulge a few of my initial thoughts beforehand. First, I wanted to step back for some perspective here. After having lived in various parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn the past four years, it's my feeling that LA residents enjoy an absolute bounty of choices in Thai food. And you don't have to live in Hollywood. At most, you have maybe two edible Thai restaurants within delivery range in any part of Manhattan. The only good, authentic Thai food I had in NY was in Williamsburg (I forget the name, but it was not Sea Thai).
To give you a sense of my taste, I can tell you My favorite Thai restaurants in the US are Renu Nakorn, EZ Thai in Hollywood, and VIM in Koreatown (that was 5 years ago, however). I've also found Thai food to be very good in the Tenderloin in SF. Of course the best Thai food I had was when I traveled through there for 2 months (this even after adjusting for the fact that food always tastes better on vacation--something we often neglect to consider). I was island hopping throughout the south. Bangkok was my home base, where I kept my things in a nice business residency hotel. It was in this hotel where I had my favorite dish: Thai beef jerky--small bits of air-dried, marinated beef quickly deep fried and served simply with a side of fish sauce and sliced rat shit peppers and jasmine rice. Despite all the bounty of Thai dishes, it was this simple dish that I ordered every time I came back to the hotel. I took a cooking class in Phuket from a nice lady who happened to have owned a restaurant in LA years back (but chose to spend her retirement in tropical Phuket, where she was able to buy a large, beautiful house atop a green mountain, from which she taught her cooking classes). Here I learned several secrets of Thai cooking: a mortar and pestle is absolutely key for bringing out the flavor of scallions (small, pink ones from Thailand), garlic; MSG is absolutely unnecessary and can be substituted with a little extra love, a teaspoon of raw brown sugar and a teaspoon of palm sugar; and how tom yum koong to me exemplifies thai food: the balance of sweet, sour, hot and salt. also, don't ever ask a Thai food purist how to make thai iced tea. I asked the lady and she scoffed and dismissed my request in one exasperated snort. I felt sufficiently chagrined not to ask why. She did serve an excellent lemongrass iced tea, however.
One other comment: I can't claim to be an arbiter of what is authentic Thai or not. But who can? My friends in Thailand, being Thai, are definitely arbiters of what is "traditional" thai food, but not "authentic" thai food. They are well-to-do young urbanites, and like most of their ilk, eschew domestic food (leaving that to family dinners) and instead frequented sushi and Indonesian noodle joints. But one particularly memorable restaurant I went to was a tiny, unmarked hole in the wall, off one of the major thoroughfares in Bangkok, where all the young clubbers went after 2am. I don't think it had a name; my friend just called it "chicken rice". by 2am it was a complete scene; young partygoers packed it and a large elephant parked right outside (it was busking for some change). the menu was simple: chicken rice for 60 bhat. pieces of fresh, marinated chicken on a bed of jasmine rice. that's it. but the taste was heavenly. was it authentic? who the hell knows. one time, as my friend and i, drunk, were hunched over and stuffing our faces, a large rat came running from the alleyway in back of the restaurant, along the baseboard of the wall, over some boxes and out the front entrance. my friend looked at me with some trepidation. i shrugged and kept eating. that was damn good chicken and i wasn't going to let a little rodent rain on my parade.
so now you know where i am coming from. here are my reviews:
ratings: (1-5, 5 being best)
PAM venice 5 probably the best in the area; not traditional, but a lot of care is taken with each dish; unique chicken mint; small portions; kranamthuang very good; too expensive
THAI BEER culver city 4 green chicken curry, ordered spicy, very good; larger green peppers; tom yum koong similar to star of siam; chicken mint decent
STAR OF SIAM venice 3 tom yum koong decent, not spicy enough, but with nice small mushrooms and plenty of shrimp; beef salad pretty good
SIAMESE GARDEN venice 3 green chicken curry, pretty spicy and passable. Beef salad not great, worse than star of siam. Kranumthuang not great.
WIRIN venice 3 green chicken curry not great, too much milk; worse than star of siam; beef salad ok, same as star of siam
POOM venice 2 mee krob was weird; chicken basil was spicy, but like chinese food
EAST WIND marina del rey 2 bland stuffed chicken wings, overbattered and fried; bland red curry chicken with peas and red peppers; americanized
SIAM PLACE venice 1 horrible chinese-like takeout
SIAM BEST venice 1 chicken mint uses hot pepper flakes; glass noodle salad with seafood: shrimp tastes old; noodles are dry; not good
HOUSE OF THAI TASTE venice 1 chinese food; seafood delight had old shrimp, and taste of pork (like chinese food); roast duck fried rice, rice was old and dry; white rice was not jasmine rice
There are more restaurants that deliver but I am all Thai'd out at the moment. Maybe I will continue my study later.
Poom Thai is hands-down my favorite Thai restaurant. But your experience at Poom will depend a lot on when you go and what you order. If you go at lunch, or any other time that they're crazy-busy, your food won't be quite up to snuff. If you order off the $4 lunch menu, don't expect a $10 meal. Try going for dinner early, or on a weekday evening, for the best food. (If the owner, Sam, is cooking, so much the better.)
Most of the people who dislike it seem to have ordered pad thai. Don't order pad thai. Instead, try the eggplant tofu (soft eggplant and crunchy peppers stir-fried with tofu in a delicate, slightly sweet sauce) or pra-ram tofu (on a bed of spinach with a peanut-coconut sauce) or the green curry (I like it with eggplant). Their green bean with little spicy bits of ground meat is pretty good too.
Sam and Rose are recent immigrants, and with a few dishes I don't think they've quite figured out how to adapt them to American taste buds. That's okay, if I want fried cream cheese or stuffed chicken wings or mee krob, I'll go somewhere else.
I once saw a guy bring in a live fish in a bag, which Sam cooked for him. I've gotta do that sometime.
I've never seen anything like frozen carrots at Wat Thai. Definitely give it a try, although don't expect the same dishes you would get in a restaurant -- it's street food, and therefore doesn't have the full array of curries, stirfries, noodles, etc. found in a restaurant. You might try hitting an excellent restaurant like Swan Thai in North Hollywood first, then checking out the temple for sticky rice and mango for dessert, to get the best of both worlds. Beware, however, of going on Songkran (Thai water festival) in April -- lines at the temple were an hour long, not worth it despite having more festivities than usual.
Well said... Phew - I can take another deep breath with my head intact (I can sense the presence of your devilish sneer ;>). Since you've been to Thailand on a number of occasions - I've only been to touristy Phuket (still regretting it) on a side trip from KL - you obviously know that Thai food has two main components that cannot be comprimised: The quality of ingredients and execution. Like you, I'm still trying to make up an excuse to fight my way over to Wat Thai. I hear it is the closest thing to stepping into a hawker center in Bangkok, minus the humidity and the occasional coup. Please keep us informed if any folks make it out there!
I assure you I am sneerless! Good healthy debate is always a good thing. Rather than being a thorn in my side I'm beginning to view you as a devil on my shoulder. If you continue to tempt me with goodies from that-bakery-that-shall-not-be-named I may have to bill you for my new wardrobe!
I too hope to visit the Wat soon. If you make it over there please report here on the presence or absence of frozen carrots. Major dealbreaker.
I pretty much agree with both of you. Thai food in the Westside is not a strong point. One can easily order an appetite fulfilling meal at a reasonable price by having Thai food delivered to one's home - especially when one has had a long day and breaking out the pans or leaving home isn't going to be an option. As far as expecting the equivalent of Chinese cuisine in SGV, I don't think we in the Westside can expect a close-to-true Thai eating experience like in Hollywood, North Hollywood or Wat Thai. Thai cuisine is so intricate, in the sourcing of ingredients, what is in season, using the right and complex mix if spices and herbs, and of course, what translates well here in the US - and in our case, in LA. Although IMHO it is getting better in general - e.g., varieties of thai eggplants at the farmers markets, kaffir lime trees in So Cal, alot of Thai food doesn't translate well to the American palette, so it seems that items like Pad Thai and stuffed chicken wings have become staples in the Westside. And because of this cater to the Lowest Common Denominator mentality is successful, we seem to be caught in the proverbial viscious cycle of Thai restaurants offering what they think will work best (based on what's available through local sourcing) in a market that isn't perceived as wanting anything else. In turn, we the consumer validate this by constantly ordering these pseudo and subpar dishes. I don't know what it will take to change the market around. My assumption is the vast majority of Thai kitchens are run by third and fourth tier cooks and owners who wouldn't be able to cut it in culinary ability in more Thai-rich areas. Until someone who is serious about bringing really good Thai food to our end of town, and of course the local responding favorably to it, we're stuck.
Pam's Place: Pretty good relative to your other test samples. I just don't know how they stay in business. They must do brisk take-out/delivery because their restaurant always feels like a ghost town. You would think that they would do good lunch business since they sit in a business park and are adjacent to Abbot Kinney, but you could hear a noodle drop around lunchtime.
Thai Beer: Had a couple of ill-prepared dishes - one was green curry - Thai people can make curries in their sleep - when they first opened years ago. Maybe it's not fair to judge them on their opening days, but once bitten, twice shy, baby...
Star of Siam: I was a regular there back in the 80's. Small but good food. They had a chef who made this chicken curry - I think it was called home-style chicken curry. It was in between a red and yellow curry - more like Malaysian-style curry. He used large chunks of bone-in chicken which added to the flavor and kept the chicken from getting leathery. I loved this dish, and as much of a pain it was to eat with bones flying and fingers laden with curry in front of dates, I would still order it. Alas, both the chef and I are long gone.
East Wind: They were the first Thai Restaurant in MDR/Venice. They used to be haled because they were the only Thai restaurant around! I think they might have gone through at least a couple of owner changes. Haven't eaten there in years.
Siam Best: No, the Worst. Went there after graduating from college. Just wanted some simple dishes in a quiet atmosphere. And it was quiet for a good reason - they really are horrible. One of my pet peaves is Thai and Chinese restaurants using frozen diced carrots and peas. This is the tip-off that they lack focus on quality. I think we ordered five dishes, and three of the five had these peas and diced carrots in them. Man, Thai food is all about using great ingredients.
House of Thai Taste. Although they have some curries that are edible (and again - most Thai people can make curries in their sleep), most of their other dishes have been a disappointment. As you've mentioned, I'm not sure if some of the dishes are Thai or Chinese, and even still, they are often too wet and either under- or over-seasoned.
We liked Klang Dong in Culver City when they first opened - we were on their good side as we would let them have as many Kaffir Lime leaves off of our tree as they wanted - and would reciprocate with some free dishes or dishes off the menu - but they have lost their edge too - maybe they now have their own lime tree!
Okay Hrhboo, I'll be a thorn in your side again, but c'mon, I know you're as sharp as a knife. You know as well as anyone else who is willing to admit it that there's no place like home... especially when it comes to food... I feel the same when it comes to rich experiences like Ocha Kaiseki in Kyoto, or simple experiences like eating sizzling sticks of sate in Singapore. But then again, it's those kinds of experiences that one would hope will never be duplicated anywhere else. Otherwise everything would be McDonalds.
Bulavinaka, I agree with you on all points (for a change!). It's very sad that the quality of the ingredients used in our local Thai spots is subpar and it's true that we continue, at least occasionally, to order these items thus perpetuating the myth that this is what Westside consumers want. It's amazing how so many mediore Thai restaurants manage to survive in such a small vicinity but that says a lot about how low the expectations of the dining public must be. Or perhaps, like you and I, they succumb to the convenient option and put up with what they get.
Of course I'm not expecting anywhere near the standard of cooking that I would experience in a Thai home but all it boils down to is simply using fresh ingredients and charging a little more for what they serve. I would happily pay much more than the $6.99 they charge for a curry if it actually contained decent shrimp that didn't reek of deep-freeze. If they can manage it at Wat Thai and good Thai spots in Hollywood while still keeping prices reasonable, it shouldn't be so difficult to achieve on the westside.
Hah! I too have conducted an informal research study on this very same subject! Almost everyday I come home to my Venice apartment to find a delivery menu from some Thai place or other hung on my doorknob. Over the course of several weeks I attempted to try each one of them in an effort to determine which is best (a girl can only eat so much Thai) I applaud your selfless sacrifice in the name of research by committing yourself to more that one Thai dinner a night! I admit that I often let several days or even weeks go by in between samplings.
Aaaand...they're all pretty lame. Having visited Thailand on several occasions and eaten in the homes of Thai friends I can honestly say that it just isn't worth it. I'm not referring to the expense (minimal) but rather to the anticipation and inevitable disappointment which surely ensues.
I have not yet made it to Wat Thai. As I have seen reported here it is the closest one can find to authentic Thai food in LA.