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Sanamluang Cafe

June 18, 2012

Go to Thailand and say “Sanam Luang” and everyone will tell thatsanam luangis the name of a large open-air field that sits directly in front of Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace in Bangkok.  This area has long been the site of royal ceremonies, including coronations and creamations of kings and queens all the way back to the time of King Rama I in the late 1700s.  Walk around Los Angeles and say Sanamluang, and anyone familiar with Thai food and Thai Town (a small section of Hollywood) will automatically think of the restaurant on Hollywood Blvd.  Known for its late night dining (it’s open until 3:30 am every day), and amazingly delicious, and cheap authentic Thai food, this place has been a mecca for Thai people living in Southern California as long as I’ve been alive.  Today, in addition to the Thai people it attracks looking for authentic Thai food, it’s a haven for Thai food enthusiast seeking the wonderful and authentic flavors of Thailand here in Los Angeles.  Sanamluang, which I always call a hole-in-the-wall with out-of-this-world flavor has branched out beyond its original Hollywood location to include a store in North Hollywood and one in Ponoma.  Unknown to me, I have friends and colleagues, who have been to this place on their own and love it just as much as I do.  This was the restaurant that I took my then-boyfriend (now husband) to so that he could experience his first taste of Thai food.  He became hooked, thankfully for me.

My family and I try to eat at Sanamluang as often as possible, but due to its location in Hollywood, we don’t make it there as often as we’d like.  Or, if we happen to be closer to North Hollywood location, we will stop there for a meal as well.  The North Hollywood location is where we recently found ourselves for lunch.

When you’re seated at the restaurant, each guest is given a menu.  But this menu is not like most menus you find at most restaurants.  Unless you can read Thai (which half the menu is written in) or you are intimately familiar with Thai food and its names, you’d never be able to understand this menu, except for the fact that the menu is more like a picture book than a menu.  The menu contains photographs of at least half of the items on the menu, including all the most popular items that the majority of guests who dine here eat.  That’s why at the bottom of the menu, it states that you can place your order by number.  Each food picture on the menu is associated with a number that will take you to its location in the menu with a written description (in English and Thai) of what’s in the dish.  Using this picture book method, it makes it a lot easier for guests to order their food based on the pictures they see.  Also, all around the store, you will see blown up pictures displayed of various popular dishes as well.  It’s a great way to see what you’re ordering before you commit to it!

I’ve talked before about my love for iced coffee drinks (see: Cold Coffe Drinks Come in Many Forms) and one of my absolute favorites is Thai iced coffee.  I could drink Thai iced coffee morning noon and night.  And when I visit Thailand one of my “must-have” items is Thai iced coffee made the old-fashioned way.  Every time I go to Sanamluang, I must order a Thai iced coffee.  It’s not a question of “have to”, but really a “must!”  Nowadays, I order my Thai iced coffee with boba in it.  The boba, or tapioca pearl balls, just add a little extra umph to the drink.  Kind of like a surprise, or a little something extra.

Of course, not everyone likes boba, like my husband or my father, so they still order the traditional Thai iced coffee.  While Thai iced tea tends to be more popular generally, for my family it’s all about the Thai iced coffee!

For an appetizer, we ordered shrimp cakes.  This is something that both my husband and I love.  In New England, you’ve got the crab cake.  In Thailand, you’ve got fish cakes.  Traditionally, fish cakes are very popular in Thailand.  You take fish paste (basically ground up fish meat) mixed with thinly sliced long beans, curry paste, and some sort of a binder (like egg) mixed together to form a patty and then deep-fried.  While I like fish cakes enough, I have to say that the shrimp cakes, to me, are much better.  Essentially made the same way as fish cakes, these tod mun goong, as they are known in Thai, are delicious.  Fresh made, they are crispy on the outside and flavorful and tender on the inside.

My husband, looking for something new to order, looked through the picture menu book and decided on a dish called yum woon sen.  Essentially, the translation for this dish is basically a glass noodle salad.  Ever since eat cellophane noodles with Dungeness crab at RockSugar my husband has been in love with cellophane or glass noodles.  In this dish, you get cooked glass noodles mixed with a variety of seafood, including shrimp, and vegetables including cilantro and mushrooms, tossed in a lime vinaigrette.  My husband looked this dish.  Of course, it has glass noodles, so he was already happy with that, but mix it with the tangy lime vinaigrette and a the spice of some of the chilis they put in there and he ate it all up!

On this particular day, I went with an old standby of mine and ordered Hainan chicken.  It’s something I grew up eating as a child and have always loved.  To me, Hainan chicken is comfort food.  Officially known in the food world Hainanese chicken rice, this is a dish that originates in the Hainan province of China.  In Hainanese cooking, food is generally lighter with mild seasoning.  As people from the Hainan province dispersed across Asia and especially Southeast Asia, the popularity of this dish has spread and this dish is considered quite popular and common fare in Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore.  In Thailand, this dish is referred to as khao mun gai.  The traditional Hainan way of preparing the chicken is to boil an entire whole chicken in chicken stock.  The chicken meat is then cut up and served over white rice that has been cooked in chicken stock as well.  This produces a flavorful and oily rice, which is where the Thai term khao mun comes from as it literally translates to “oily rice.”  In the Thai preparation of this dish, the chicken and rice are generally served accompanied by sliced cucumber and sometimes blood tofu.  The dish is also accompanied by a bowl of clear chicken broth and a dipping sauce yellow soybean paste, thick soy sauce, chili, ginger, garlic and vinegar.  Fortunately, sanamluang doesn’t serve their Hainan chicken with blood tofu.  And while I’m told that the dipping sauce that comes with the dish is quite tasty, since I don’t really like spicy food, I don’t use the dipping sauce.  But I find the chicken to be very flavorful and the oily rice to be excellent.  Having this meal along with the chicken broth soup as a side is a perfect and comforting meal and no one makes this dish in the LA area as well as Sanamluang does.

My dad ordered a bowl of Thai boat noodles.  Thai boat noodles are one of the specialities of Sanamluang.  When I have family come to LA from Thailand they’ll request to eat at Sanamluang just so they can order the Thai boat noodles.  If a Thai person coming from Thailand requests to eat the Thai boat noodles at a Thai restaurant in Los Angeles, you know they must be pretty darn good.  Made with a beef broth, a variety of veggies such as bean sprouts and cilantro, as well as fish meat balls, flavored with chili and other spices, and topped with some pieces of crispy pork rind, this is a classic Thai dish and what you will commonly find Thai people eating on a daily basis for lunch.

Finally, my mom ordered something that is also a favorite of my husbands: chicken kra pow or Thai basil chicken.  In truth, this dish could be made with any kind of ground meat, though chicken is the most popular form it is found in.  It’s basically stir fry of Thai holy basil, ground chicken, chilis, garlic and ginger sautéed together to create an aromatic, fragrant, and spicy (depending on how you cook it) dish that is set atop steamed rice.  A lot of times, in restaurants you’ll also find this dish topped by a fried egg, or a sunny-side up egg.  The dish gets its name and most of its flavor from Thai holy basil, which is different from the sweet basil used in Italian cooking.  Thai holy basil is native mainly to Southeast Asia and is cultivated for specific characteristics.  One of these characteristics is the ability to maintain its flavor under high or extreme cooking conditions, which normal sweet basil cannot do.  This dish is a favorite of a lot of Thai people because it hits so many different notes; salty, sweet, spicy, etc.

If you ever find yourself in the mood for good, authentic Thai food, you should give Sanamluang a try.  Hey, if Thai people who love in Thailand come to California looking for Thai food and go to Sanamluang Cafe, then you know it must be pretty good.  I bet you’d be hard pressed to find a Thai person living in Southern California who had never been to Sanamluang and who didn’t have anything but great things to say about this restaurant.  Sometimes hole-in-the-wall places serve the most delectable food!

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 19, 2012 4:57 am

    Your favorite restaurant sounds terrific. I think I would enjoy the flavors of you mom’s dish the best. I have never seen shrimp or fish cakes on a Thai menu before…so much for getting authentic Thai in New England.

    • June 19, 2012 9:53 am

      That’s surprising that you’ve never seen fish cakes or shrimp cakes. Fish cakes are especially popular, and since you live in an area where fresh seafood is readily available, I would have thought for certain you could find it in Thai restaurants in your area.

      • June 19, 2012 10:26 am

        I don’t know why they don’t have them although I’ve never found a great Thai restaurant around where we live.

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