The best Thai food in Los Angeles is not where you’d expect

Every weekend, smoke rises from the parking lot of Wat Thai in the Valley of the Sun. The aroma of barbecued meat over an open fire, fried bananas in a pot of boiling oil, lemongrass and chili peppers and fish sauce drifts down the block, through the perimeter of the 50-year-old Thai Buddhist temple, the oldest in the country.

This is where about 17 vendors gather every weekend to sell papaya salad prepared in a large stone mortar, thinly sliced ​​ripe mangoes with sticky rice, grilled pork skewers, deep-fried chicken skins, and styrofoam boxes filled with rice. fried crab, grilled spring rolls. Pork sausage with raw garlic and rice flour pizza filled with “Thai gelato”. There are even farmers who are forced to market bags of warm corn.

Visitors roam the outdoor food court with their heads turned, clutching bagels filled with orange and purple resin. You exchange cash for $1 tokens and $2 give them to vendors like Monopoly coins.

A variety of Thai dishes are available at the food market.

Food selection from vendors at Wat Thai Temple Weekend Market.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

On average, each weekend the market welcomes about 1,500-2,000 visitors. And on a busy Sunday, this little parking lot can feel like the nucleus of the Thai community in Los Angeles.

“It’s exactly like the markets you can find all over Thailand,” said Tor Saralamba, Thailand’s consul general in Los Angeles and a frequent visitor to the food court. “Food is culture; It represents who we are and the market is like a guide to our food. ”

It started in the 1980s with one or two families selling food to feed the parents and grandparents of children taking classes at the temple, according to Ton Pattana, who takes over the food court operation in 2021. It was originally located underneath the building where classes were held, but quickly crossed the space and moved.

A row of stalls at a food market.

Weekend market at Wat Thai temple.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

After a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic, the weekend food court returned in November with a new lineup of rotating vendors. But not everyone can be a provider. First, you need to win a good old fashioned treat.

“I wanted it to be fair, so we had a competition,” says Pattana, “With COVID, we had to reduce the number of suppliers from more than 25 to 17.”

Pattana held a contest in which potential vendors introduced dishes to five anonymous judges who owned Thai restaurants in Los Angeles. The aim is to have a wide representation of the cuisine at the market. If you want to fry bananas, you’ll have to go up against another vendor for a spot.

Mother and daughter own a pho shop

Suchada and Heng Vongasavarit, owners of the Heng Heng 88 noodle stall at Wat Thai temple food court.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Heng Vongasavarit and his mother, Suchada, have been selling bowls of pho at the temple since 2003. They proudly display a first-class competitive vendor banner under their menu of images of duck pho, vermicelli and pho. .

The duck noodle soup is the most popular, with a thick, meaty, viscous broth and tangled noodles. It is garnished with tender duck slices, crispy skin and lots of cilantro.

The Vongasavarits run restaurants in Thailand but say they won’t be moving from the temple food court any time soon.

“Owning a restaurant is a headache,” says Heng. “Here, the initial investment is not much, the overall cost is affordable, and it is not nearly as expensive as building bricks.”

The temple takes 20% of every dollar in exchange for tokens at the market. That money goes toward paying for the temple, renewing the food court’s license every three months, and providing tents, tables, and chairs for vendors.

“Over the past two months, we have spent $120,000 on repainting and almost $80,000 on new carpeting for the temple,” said Pattana. “We spent $100,000 to remodel the market and get it working again.”

A plate of pad Thai.

Pad Thai from Pad Thai Boran at the weekend market.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Art Sungkamee runs the Pad Thai Boran stall a few tents north of Heng Heng 88. The front photo menu features enlarged photos of crab fried rice, green curry crab and Sungkamee’s specialty, pad Thai.

On a recent Sunday, in the makeshift kitchen behind his tent, Sungkamee expertly handled a frying pan over fire, blanching thin, flat noodles in a sweet tamarind sauce until they were tender. soft and shiny noodles. A scrambled egg in seconds is thrown in along with bean sprouts and lots of green onions. If you want an exemplary version of pad Thai, this is the place to find it.

Cardboard box containing two types of fried desserts.

Daeng’s Desserts Fried Banana and Sweet Potato Balls.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

There are plenty of options for dessert, with deep-fried bananas and sweet potato balls that look like perfectly round donut holes but taste like mochi. And plates of khanom khrok with stuffed, crispy crepes look like tiny cigars. But for that “gelato,” visit a software engineer named Darwin Wai at the purple and yellow Moom Maam tent near the northwest corner of the food court.

A man in a shirt with a bold pattern stands among yellow flowers.

Darwin Wai, owner of Moom Maam.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

“There aren’t too many Thai specialties and I wanted to create something new that isn’t really available in the states here,” Wai said.

In May 2021, in between technical jobs, he ordered a $30 ice cream machine from Amazon and started making gelato. His core flavors include Thai tea, espresso, vegan fior di cocco (a play on fior di latte), croissant and mango. Moom Maam is one of the few temple vendors that you will soon be able to find outside the market. Wai recently started selling its desserts on a food truck that you can follow via Instagram.

Wherever you find Wai, you can order his version of banh chung, simply called “special”. Wai started by making a fresh waffle using a gluten-free flour that he developed when he started selling fried bananas at the market in November. (He actually won the contest. fried banana contest and then gradually started selling gelato.)

A bowl of waffles holds a frozen dessert.

Moom Maam’s mango and coconut gelato at the Wat Thai Temple weekend market.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

When the waffles are done, he carefully folds along the edges to create a wavy bowl. He added sweet coconut sticky rice, then two scoops of gelato. The special is completed with a sprinkle of toasted grated coconut and caramelized jaggery. For the semi-frozen version of mango sticky rice, order your special with fior di cocco and mango sticky rice. The flavors are instantly recognizable, only in the semi-frozen state. It’s the best way to soothe your tongue after an onslaught of chili and garlic. The best Thai food in Los Angeles is not where you’d expect

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