Deep in the San Fernando Valley, north of Los Angeles, is some of the best Thai food in the world. This food isn't found in a restaurant, and it's not in someone's home, either. It's in a parking lot adorned by giant, gold, and ornately decorated anthropomorphic yak statues regally standing in front of a thatched red roof Theravada Buddhist temple that's out of Thailand. Since the late 1980s, the 37-year-old Wat Thai—or Thai Temple—of Los Angeles—has operated an outdoor food court in its parking lot.
"Before Thai town, it was the only place to get anything great," says Thai chef Jet Tila. Tila's family literally laid one of the cornerstone's of the temple when the community broke ground to build it in the 1970s—he knows the scene well.
With a small collection of ad hoc kitchens behind dinky market stands, Thai grandmas and aunties shared their personal versions of green curry, pork larb, boat noodles (an offal-rich dish of noodles in broth), and many other cherished dishes with their community. It was the best-kept secret in the Thai community, and soon the food-obsessed came out in droves, following their noses to the scent of sticky street meat that is the unofficial national scent of Thailand.
But in 2007 this Thai street food mecca became just a field of dreams when the surrounding community—which is not, for the most part, Thai—complained about the weekend crowds creating too much garbage and parking nightmares. The city shut down the "food court" and its customers found themselves being consoled over bowls of steaming tom yum soup in the fine restaurants that now dot Hollywood Boulevard in Thai town.
As everyone knows, though, eating in a restaurant is not the same as juggling cups of longan juice while balancing flimsy paper plates of jasmine rice with fried catfish and Styrofoam bowls of red curry, all the while holding a bag (with your pinky finger) of just-fried sweet coconut fritters and plastic condiment containers filled with neon green custard as the sun beats down on your head and sweat envelops you. The call of street food is unparalleled.
Finally, after the city eased the ban on the temple's foodie paradise just a few weeks ago, "the unpleasantness subsided between the neighborhood," explains Tila. And it seems the temple not only overcame some "internal" issues, Tila notes, but perhaps also implemented some improvements to the infrastructure (better parking, more garbage removal).
In other words, it's time to rejoice. Because, says Tila, outside of Thailand, "this is the closest thing to Bangkok street food or an open-air food mall." Twenty percent of sales from the Wat Thai "food court" support the temple—they use a charming token system to sell the food—so really it's a bake sale of sorts. The best bake sale you've ever been to.
One of the first stalls you'll see upon entering the street food fair is Pita's desserts. Pita has cut open and beautifully displayed a monster-like jackfruit to distribute its sea urchin-like flesh atop her gleaming sticky rice, another version of which is neatly stacked in a pile of banana leaf-wrapped packets. Anchoring the corner of her L-shaped tables are two huge vats of iced coconut milk drinks with either floating grass jelly or a mixture of candied red chestnuts, tapioca pearls, green jelly squares, yellow mango bits, and other assorted jiggly goods.
During the week Pita works for a messenger service company, but now that the market has reopened she's here on weekends selling her desserts, which are all her parents' recipes from the street kitchens of Bangkok. They used to man this very stall years ago, before they passed away. Now on some weekends Pita is joined by her affable friend Amy, who otherwise works for LA County in the accounting department.
At other stalls a Thai grandmother is actually slicing dough into rice cakes or frying chicken in a giant wok in the back. Kunya's fresh papaya salad may not be the best version you can find in southern California (that would be at Ruen Pair restaurant), but the experience of watching the aged Kunya pound the chilies and tiny shrimp in fish sauce with a large stone mortar and pestle that is half of her body size is not to be missed. Neither is the Isaan sausage at the neighboring stall—and that is probably the best version of the sweet fermented sausage you can find in these parts.
Over the din of the "live" recorded Thai music, you'll be asked at some of the stalls if you want your food spicy, and when you say yes, and you are not Thai, you'll be asked again in disbelief if you are sure about that decision. You are. That's what you've come here for.