Some people caution parents of young kids never to waste time and money on exotic travels. I think there’s some truth in it.
When I was young, my parents took me, my brother and my cousin (who lived with our family for 10 years) around the countries of Southeast Asia whenever they could afford it. We road tripped to Malaysia. We flew to Jakarta and some other rural regions in Indonesia. We went to Macau and Hong Kong. We also went to Thailand.
There isn’t very much I remember from any of those travels. Take Thailand, for example. I have but faint traces of memories about that mystical Siam kingdom.
I remember walking up the steps to an ancient Buddhist temple, but my focus was mostly on the wild monkeys lumbering about the stairs staring at me with penetrating brown eyes. I remember a few street performers playing acoustic instruments and singing soulfully.
I remember some green pastures littered with pigeons; my mother and I chased them hand-in-hand, sending the birds fluttering up into the sky, making a gentle loop and settling back to where they were.
But most of all, I remember the night my parents made a mistake and took us to a theater featuring drag queens. I was about seven or eight at the time growing up in a conservative country, so I had no idea what transvestites or homosexuality was. I just thought it was just a lurid, flamboyant and fun performance staged by men who happened to dress up as women so that they could tear open their blouses and squeeze water out of their fake boobs without embarrassment.
Other than those few recollections, my visit to Thailand is a fog to me. What a shame, because right now, I would give anything to visit that country again. Especially because I’ve fallen in love with their food.
Thai food reminds me a lot of Singaporean hawker cuisine, presumably because they share similar produce and spices. It’s more than pad thai and sticky mango rice pudding, and I’m going to show you a few other Thai dishes I would love for you to try too (if you haven’t already wisely done so).
Apparently, Los Angeles has the largest Thai population outside of Thailand. I believe it, because our Thai Town— a strip of street mottled with Thai restaurants, markets, bakeries, shops and spas along Hollywood Boulevard between Normandie and Western— is extensive and wonderfully packed.
Apparently it’s been praised even by Anthony Bourdain—my unofficial guide to delicious, bullshit-free traveling.
Bourdain once did an episode of visiting Sapp Coffee Shop. Obviously I had to enter a place that graced the honorable steps of the mighty Bourdain. I called two of my foodie buddies.
Say hi to fellow blogger Marilyn:
And my lovely Hollywood-residing friend Tracy:
Sapp Coffee Shop is not a coffee shop, as one Yelp reviewer sadly discovered. Coffee shops in Southeast Asia takes a different from the cute cafes serving espresso that one might imagine.
First of all, it’s sort of dinky, and totally inconspicuous. It’s advertised by a yellow and red sign in which the English letters are squeezed to the side of big Thai characters. It’s the kind of sign to which you’d likely pay no attention as you pass by.
And then there’s the store. Your eyes might glance at the “B” rating by the health department, and then glance away. But if you get scared off by a less than “A” rating, you’ll be missing out on a lot of awesome food in Los Angeles.
For most of the Thai restaurants I’ve visited, I’ve noticed altars on the wall, just like what I would normally see in casual open-air eateries in Singapore. And like them, Sapp Coffee Shop was not air-conditioned but supplied sufficient natural cooling with a standing fan:
The dining tables were neat and clean with minimal artistic design. I loved seeing the array of chilis—green and pickled, red and vinegared, and powdered—on each table:
I liked the vibe already. It just felt pretty familiar, a hole-in-the-wall type of authenticity.
Sapp Coffee Shop offers an extensive menu, but my heart was set on one dish alone: the boat noodles.
It’s a daring dish, depending on what kind of food you like. Thai boat noodles is a beef noodle soup that got its name because it was traditionally served off boat-eateries that floated through the rivers and canals of Thailand. But beef isn’t the only protein in this dish—it also comes with offal like liver and tripe, and the broth is spiked with a healthy splash of…animal blood.
Yes, that’s why the broth is so dark. It’s bleeding!
I enjoy Korean blood sausages once in a while, so I didn’t feel too creeped out by the idea of drinking blood. But I have very strong negative reactions to liver, so I asked for the liver to be left off my boat noodles.
What I got was an extra-spicy (my request) bowl of rice noodles strewn with beef slices, beef balls, chewy tendons (my favorite!), deep-fried tripe (like Chicharrones!) fried garlic and shallots, fresh cilantro, and blood-infused broth.
There’s definitely a funky odor and taste as I slurped up the springy noodles saturated with savory broth.
It can be a bit disconcerting. At first. But after a slurp or two, I started to really appreciate the depth and intensity of flavors swimming in the broth. It was delicious!
Marilyn opted for a less bloody dish called Jade Noodles:
I imagine more people would enjoy this clean, sprightly dish than my dark, ominous boat noodles. It’s an interesting, fantastic dish of opposing flavors and textures.
The noodles, which taste just like Chinese wonton noodles, are tinted green from pureed spinach, but you won’t taste no spinach in there. It’s really just for the eye-pleasing color.
The noodles come with sliced char siew pork, sliced roast duck, fresh shredded crab, crushed roasted peanuts, scallions, cilantro, red pepper and lime. What you do is squeeze the lime over and give the noodles a good toss. You don’t eat the individual toppings separate—you want it mixed in well so that each bite comes with each of everything.
It’s freaking amazing. Poultry, pork and seafood in one noodle dish? How can you go wrong with such a holy trinity combination?
Tracy, being mostly vegetarian, asked the owner if they had a vegetarian dish. They didn’t on the menu…but they were happy to whip up a separate wholly vegetarian dish just for her. Now that’s service!
OMG. OMG. OMFG. SO GOOD! I freaking love taro, and this must be one of my favorite ways to eat them: packed densely with rice powder into a cake and pan-fried until the edges are crispy and brown while the insides are chewy and gooey.
I think I practically attacked Tracy’s dish with fevor, pushing taro after taro into my mouth. I would visit Sapp every day just for this dish.
To cleanse our palate, we also had a side dish of som tam, or papaya salad:
This was lovely. Fresh, crisp, brightly-flavored with fish sauce and tons of roasted peanuts.
A lot of som tam I’ve tried barely has any spice in them, even though I painstakingly ask the server to make it as spicy as possible. Sapp’s som tam? They definitely packed the spice in there! Delightful!
After our hot, spicy, sour and savory meal, we craved something sweet so we headed to the next door Thai dessert shop, and was greeted by a young boy running around in his underpants.
He wasn’t too shy to pose for me, either. I didn’t even ask him to, he just went ahead and posed because he saw my camera, even though I wasn’t going to take a picture of him at first. Super cute guy.
I think in Thai you pronounce this dessert shop as Ramsong, but in English it’s just Thai Dessert and Vegetarian Food. I was bedazzled by the cases of colorful dessert and the aroma of frying carbs and boiling eggs.
It’s a simple set-up: an open kitchen/bakery overlooking a counter that presents all its sweet goods. So you know for sure the stuff you’re buying is made fresh in house by hand.
I was most curious by these golden balls stewing in a syrup:
They turned out to be egg yolks! Sweetened egg yolks as dessert? Sounds good to me. Other than balls, they also magically shape them into skinny strands like this:
I wonder what they do with all the leftover egg whites though?
After much deliberation, we decided on four desserts to munch on while watching the Sex and the City series together:
First up, Khanom Buang, or more easily referred to as Thai tacos:
Indeed, they are light, crunchy crackers shaped into a taco, glazed with a sweet meringue and topped with those egg yolk strands.
Second, oven-dried bananas with honey:
Thai bananas are different from the long Dole bananas we have in America. They are short and stubby and slightly starchier, which is why they make the most amazing dried bananas. These were amber-colored from the caramelized honey, and super sticky and chewy.
And my favorite of that night, Crispy Noodles:
I’ve spent the last 20 minutes searching and googling for its Thai name, but I can’t find anything! It can’t be Mi Krop, can it? Anyway, it’s this super sticky, super crispy fried noodles that has been coated with a tamarind and vinegar syrup. So it’s kind of sweet, but also amazingly tart. Dangerously addictive…couldn’t stop eating this one!
Okay, I think I need to stop. It’s 10 p.m and I’m feeling this insatiable urge to charge down to East Hollywood and beg a Thai restaurant to feed me noodles and taro and crispy noodles.
I shall be back, Thai Town. And one day, I’ll storm Thailand for real and make lasting memories of that country with the magnificent cuisine.
Question of the Day: Do you remember traveling when you were really young?