“Thai Town Check-In” explores local Thai restaurants through their own voices
In recent years, Hollywood has been one of the most popular neighborhoods for chef-driven restaurants, and also one of Los Angeles’s most diverse dining scenes, home to Central American restaurants and street vendors, Oaxacan food, Armenian specialists, and Thailand’s unofficial 77th province, Thai Town. At night the Thailand Plaza lights up like Bangkok, while tlayudas (thin Oaxacan tortillas) are as numerous as the stars on the Walk of Fame.
As America’s first and only Thai Town — often featured in food television and local press — most of the exposure has been given to places like Jitlada, Pa Ord, and Sapp Coffee Shop. But a new YouTube series called Thai Town Check-In, which premiered in spring 2021, shows the neighborhood’s comparatively unsung restaurants in short-form video. It’s a chance for Angelenos to see Thai Town restaurants like never before, hearing from the owners themselves about their best dishes and the struggles they’ve endured in the past two years.
The videos start with “Welcome to Thai Town’’ in a voice amplified by effects. A montage of Thai Town attractions follows with flashy hairstylist, musician, and Thai Town personality Faroh Kosumanan of Faroh Thai Salon flinging his arms open, followed by quick shots of food and street scenes. The delightful, comprehensive series of 38 videos and counting, produced by the Thai Town Council of Los Angeles and Spekulor Creative, features almost all of the neighborhood’s Thai restaurants, plus a few other businesses like spas; interviews are conducted in Thai (with English subtitles). It’s the best local food series that hasn’t caught a mainstream audience, with many of the videos having fewer than 500 views.
Each episode runs a little over three minutes and features the restaurateurs telling personal stories about their backgrounds, main dishes, and challenges during the ongoing pandemic, with some owners addressing anti-AAPI hate and violence that has increased in recent years. “We wanted to help all the businesses because they all lost so much during the pandemic. Thai people are very shy, so we told them we would do everything, they just had to appear on camera. Only a few places didn’t feel comfortable participating in the videos,” says Ton Pattana, the second-term president of the Thai Town Council, owner of Nuad Royal Thai Spa, and tireless supporter of Thai culture in LA.
Though the notion of authenticity is certainly a complicated subject when it comes to food, the series leans into it: Check-In’s chefs and owners embrace the words “authentic,” “original flavor,” and “Thai-style” when making parallels between their food and how those dishes are traditionally prepared in Thailand.
Much of the credit for Thai Town’s national emergence and regional focus began with Jitlada, a popular Thai restaurant that was open for decades before Jazz Singsanong and the late chef Suthiporn “Tui” Sungkamee took over in 2006, introducing super-spicy southern Thai food from the province of Nakhon Si Thammarat. “Jitlada was the first restaurant that showed people the full power, Thai-style, [of] spicy food, and now more restaurants are not afraid to cook more aggressively,” says Pattana. After decades of catering to non-Thai customers by adding sugar or taking out the chiles, Check-In lets diners know that many of these restaurants offer the tongue-splitting heat you can find in Thailand. You sometimes just have to ask.
The pandemic was the ideal time for Pattana to undertake this project for a group of businesses ready to try anything to survive. “I wanted to do this two years ago but we didn’t have the budget, but Spekulor [an LA-based video equipment rental and production company] gave us a great deal which finally made it possible,” says Pattana. “I told the production team my basic idea, that each business represents their signature dishes, or products, or good things that they have, to tell how long [they’ve been around], and what is their message,” says Pattana.
The series shows the broad range of Thai dishes available in LA that go beyond familiar classics. While binge-watching episodes over the period of a few weeks, I ordered Thai food from many of the featured restaurants. I ate duck rice from Rodded one night, a nuanced khao soi, a Northern Thai curry noodle soup, and shu mai from Boran Thai another evening. I picked up the Central-style crab curry at Lacha Somtum, and ordered from the ingeniously titled Sushi Near Me, a restaurant that adds some Thai chilies and flavors to sushi.
While there are Thai restaurants across the country and in numerous neighborhoods across Los Angeles, this video series does something few others have attempted: a nearly complete documentation of Thai Town’s food and culture. Episodes portray how owners create welcoming and accommodating environments. “Thai customer service is very polite, and Thai Town has some of the best, most respectful hospitality in Los Angeles,” says Pattana. The series gives viewers a warm reminder to revisit old favorites, discover new restaurants, and check out one of the best clusters of eating Los Angeles has to offer. Though 38 episodes have already premiered, here are five highlights.
Located in a strip mall on Western Avenue, a few spaces down from Churrasco Chapin, is chef Phritwasuphon “Ple” Thanaporn’s northern street food and central Thai restaurant, which she guarantees is “authentic” in her video. Her family had a northern Thai street food stand in Thailand, so street food is her passion. The name Mesa (which means table in Spanish) was chosen to appeal to the local Central American crowd, but her food is fiery hot for her Thai customers. “It’s very spicy, I want you to try it,” says Thanaporn, as she tilts her head toward the camera for emphasis.
Mesa’s deep-fried rice ball salad is a crispy mix of sour and ultra-spicy flavors brightened by lime and fresh herbs. Another thing to order is the tom pah, which Thanaporn says “is like being in Thailand.” Rice vermicelli comes with slivers of papaya, bamboo shoots, preserved cabbage, bean sprouts, and coriander leaves, and is recommended with squid tentacles, blue crab, or snail. Thanaporn’s signature dish is her marinated pork steak salad with crushed peanuts and a scorching lime sauce. On the weekend, she recommends the well-spiced boat noodles with a nice punch of cinnamon. “Chef Ple represents the new generation of cooks. Her boat noodles are really good, and in the small bowls like in Thailand,” says Pattana. Thanaporn spoke on the challenge of serving her food to go in the pandemic, because it “tastes great when dining in.” Be sure to ask for “Thai-style” and Thanaporn will kick up the spice like she does for Thai diners.
3778 N. Western Avenue, Unit 101, Hollywood, (323) 463-0634
For over 22 years, Sirilak Mayer has gone through ups and downs in her family-run business, so the pandemic hasn’t been as hard on her resilient Thai restaurant, bar, and music lounge, which has a large parking lot setup for outdoor dining. “Everything is from our heart,” says Mayer. Like many Thai Town restaurants with bars, Hollywood Thai Cuisine serves colorful, nostalgic drinks like mai tais, Long Island iced teas, pina coladas, zombies, and blue cocktails, as well as a nice selection of Thai, American, and Mexican beers. Needless to say, there’s plenty to drink with her pad thai that’s best with a fried egg on top. “For me their pad thai is authentic, like the pad thai I used to have back home in Bangkok,” says Pattana.
The papaya salad with blue crab, dried morning glory with crispy pork, and porridge are among the restaurant’s specialties, according to Mayer. Grilled pork and crying tiger (grilled beef) are seared on a charcoal grill, giving them a smoky char. The hell chicken is a spicy blast of peppercorns and dried red chiles fried in a wok.
5241 Hollywood Boulevard, Hollywood, (323) 467-0926
Tucked into the back of a busy strip mall along with fellow Check-In star Shrimp Lover (Episode 11), Prakopsup “Kevin” Seesod’s low-lit Darabar Thai Cuisine opened in 2011 as a “spa-style” restaurant, according to its owner. Before the pandemic, Seesod’s focus was on bar foods like grilled squid, glass noodles salad, fried chicken skin, and Thai sour sausage paired with Chang beer, bottles of Johnnie Walker, lemon drops, and sake.
“Before [the pandemic] our sales were 90 percent alcohol, 10 percent food; now it’s 90 percent food, 10 percent alcohol,” says Seesod. Seesod recommends his northeastern Thai street foods, like a deeply flavored pork meatloaf salad, and the papaya salad platter, which comes with a medley of snacks: fried chicken wings, pork jerky, fried chicken skin, hard-boiled eggs, and more. His favorite dish is a grilled squid served with a seafood dipping sauce. In the episode, he takes time to reflect on how the pandemic has been an impetus for him to improve service and make things better for customers returning from quarantine.
5112 Hollywood Boulevard, Unit 109, Hollywood, (323) 666-5055
Pattaya Bay owner Gift wants customers to know that she took over the decade-old space from the previous owner seven years ago, gave the interior an upgrade, and revamped the menu. This episode features a mouthwatering pair of blood clam dishes, featuring fresh shellfish imported from Baja California. There’s a spicy cockles salad full of Thai herbs and steamed cockles with a spicy seafood sauce to bring out the freshness of the firm blood clams. The two dishes appeal to Thai, Mexican, and Central American diners, who are typically familiar with the prized blood clam.
In the episode, Gift says tom yun soup with chicken hen and tamarind leaves is “always popular with Thai people.” Money bags, a blend of marinated ground chicken, peas, and carrots in a fried wonton skin, are served with a sweet and sour sauce. “They go great with beer,” says Gift, who offers $5 Tsingtao, Singha, and Chang beers, wine, and sake to pair with the extensive menu. The restaurant shows sporting events, and before the pandemic had live music until 3 a.m. on the weekends. Karaoke sessions feature Thai, Filipino, Indonesian, or Japanese songs.
1727 N. Vermont Avenue, Unit 105, Hollywood, (323) 666-0880
“Kruang Tedd was the hot spot for the Thai community before the pandemic for drinks and live music,” says Pattana. On a recent Friday night, Thai singer and Academy Fantasia star Pongsak Rattanapong gave a mini-concert to an enthusiastic crowd. Jessica Oungjitpisan, the restaurant’s owner, opened the restaurant so that people from the community would have a place to meet up and talk closer than Koreatown or Little Tokyo. You might even get a bit starstruck catching her at the cash register after having seen her emotional Check-In episode, where she weeps in gratitude over how important her friends and business partners were in keeping Kruang Tedd afloat during the past two years.
In the episode, Oungjitpisan talks about pivoting to moo ka ta (Thai-style Korean barbecue) and Thai-style shabu-shabu when outdoor dining was the only option. She added a breakfast menu to make up for the loss of late-night tropical-themed soju cocktails, buckets of Chang beer, icy Blue Hawaiis, and blended slushies that she normally sells. Kruang Tedd has an extensive food menu that includes Muslim-Thai khoa mok gai (a Thai riff on biryani). Oungjitpisan recommends the special khao mun gai, a Thai version of Hainan chicken rice that combines poached and fried chicken, served with prik nam pla (spicy fish sauce), nam jim gai (sweet chile sauce), and their “American” fried rice. It’s a fun Thai tribute to Americana: ketchup, chicken wings, and grilled hot dogs as sides to a dome-shaped portion of fried rice with a sunny side egg on top that’s perfect for kids — and maybe adults that can’t handle spicy food.
5151 Hollywood Boulevard, Hollywood, (323) 667-9800