With my carefully honed skill for the obvious, I noted in my review of our recent meal at Jitlada that there are other places to eat as well in Thai Town and that most of them are far less expensive. They’re not necessarily far less excellent though. Evidence for this claim: Yai. We ate two lunches here a week apart from each other; one was excellent and the other was just quite good.
Yai is a bit of a hole in the wall in a strip mall on Hollywood Blvd. (between Wilton and Van Ness) anchored by a 7-Eleven and is cash-only. The aesthetic of the small room is functional (you’re really not paying for ambience here), but the flavours of the food are baroque. At our first meal we arrived at noon and were only the second table seated, but by the time we left at 1.10 the place was hopping. We didn’t order much by our standards, but everything was excellent.
The kitchen is literally accessed through a hole in the wall.
Pok Tae (Hot and sour seafood soup with lemon grass). A tangy, hot broth with clams, mussels, shrimp, crab and fish (and also some krab, for some reason) and little slices of hot Thai chillies floating around like so many tiny mines for the unwary.
Larb. We opted for the version with beef and beef tripe. This was just excellent, with the strips of tripe providing textural contrast and a greater counterpoint to the sour dressing than meat alone would.
Crispy Catfish (Deep fried sliced catfish with sweetened red curry sauce). This may have been my favourite. The fish is on the bone but easily managed. Fried perfectly with no greasiness, and a sauce that manages to be hot, sour and sweet all at the same time. Sweetened with palm sugar, I’d guess.
Moo Pa Pad Ped. This is on the specials menu and has no description following. What you get is fatty pieces of pork (with rind too) braised with green eggplant etc. in a hot red sauce that is reminiscent in some ways of the flavours of Pad Kee Mow (Drunken Noodles).
We ate past stuffing, took a lot home for dinner, and paid a little over $50 with tax and tip.
For our second meal we arrived at about 12.15 and the place was already mostly full (and as on the first occasion, the clientele was largely Thai). We decided to eat completely different things. Everything was very good again but, on the whole, did not hit the highs of the first meal. This may have been because for whatever reason the kitchen didn’t seem to make anything particularly hot, despite our asking for everything Thai hot (and the waitress confirming). Ah well.
Boat Noodles Soup: A rich meaty broth (I suspect thickened with blood) with noodles, sprouts beef, tripe and liver (plus fried pork rinds on top). Quite good with the addition of the chilli/vinegar at the table (a staple at Chinese restaurants in India as well). I have a feeling this is meant to be a one-dish meal. It was very meaty though, and I think it might be a bit much if I were eating a full bowl of it.
Nam Tok. Grilled beef salad with marinated onions, rice powder etc. (more or less the larb seasoning). I though this was as good as last week’s larb.
Soft Catfish. Another preparation of sliced catfish on the bone in red curry. However, the catfish is not fried first and the curry is quite different in flavour and consistency (there’s a lot more sauce). Very nice but I preferred the crispy catfish by far.
Pork Leg with Chilli Garlic. Yet another dish from the “specials” section incorporating very fatty pork. No rind on this one and the meat was generally far more succulent. Again, very good but I preferred last week’s more pungent pork dish.
Sticky Rice. This was a waste of space. The rice was more hard than sticky and as it had been cooked in a ball of aluminum foil it was a pain in the ass separating the foil from the rice.
The heat issue aside, I think the reason our meal last week worked so well is that the soup on that occasion was so bright and sharp and cut through the more cloying pork and fish dishes. On the second occasion, however, the soup was itself somewhat cloying and rich and as a result we didn’t have a balanced order. Still, everything was some orders of magnitude above the standard in the Twin Cities*. We once again ate till we were stuffed and took a lot home for dinner; the bill this time, with tax and tip, did not cross $50. A great deal for very good food. I think we’ll probably be back at Yai again in August (but I think we might wait another year for our next meal at Jitlada).
*Though as I say that, I have to note that our last meal at On’s Kitchen in St. Paul was really quite good (with two dishes that wouldn’t have been out of their league at either Yai or Jitlada).