Monday, January 18, 2010

A Boatload of Noodles - Sapp Coffee House and Thai Town Noodles

Thai Boat Noodles at Thai Town Noodles

5170 Hollywood Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90027
(323) 660-8006

5136 Hollywood Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90027
(323) 667-0934

5183 Hollywood Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90027
(323) 665-1035


Suddenly it's winter. The weather has turned from dry and brittle to apocalyptic downpour. It is a time when the cold, hard world chills the fires of the soul. We seek light, warmth, and spark. Recently, I've been finding spiritual and gastronomic solace in the strip malls of Hollywood Blvd. that make up the main drag of our Thai Town, where in utilitarian, but bright, clean and pleasant noodle houses, everything, for a few slurp-filled minutes, can seem well with the world.

I have long been a devotee of Sanamluang, a cacophonous and seemingly always-crowded favorite of foodie idol Jonathan Gold. As Gold notes, Sanamluang has the advantage of being open until 4:00 am, but with their giant, confusing menu and perfunctory-at-best service, it can be difficult to get at the admittedly delightful delights of their menu -- such as the General's Noodle Soup that Gold describes as "thin, garlicky egg noodles garnished with bits of duck, barbecued pork, crumbles of ground pork and a couple of shrimp, submerged in a clean, clear broth," and the dry, soupless version of the same dish that I actually prefer. But I haven't visited Sanamluang in some time... at my last visit, I nearly missed the beginning of The Two Towers at the Arclight because the service was so slow.

Then last year, when on his (also perfunctory) Los Angeles episode of No Reservations, Anthony Bourdain visited Sapp Coffee Shop with a local blogger who operates both the Eat Drink & Be Merry and Noodle Whore websites, I noted it: never been. when the first frigid days of December hit, and I found myself both in need of winterizing supplies at Home Depot and craving something spicy and soupy, I took myself to Sapp, tucked in the corner of an unassuming strip mall. I ordered the Bourdain-approved Thai Boat Noodles.

These may be my new favorite noodles, topping even the delicious Korean-style black bean and onion sludge served at House of Joy in Glendale. A pho-like blend of beef shank, tendon, tripe, liver -- almost every imaginable part of a cow -- simmering in a rich broth of beef blood and swimming with scallions and herbs -- this is a hearty as the heartiest beef stew, but leaves you feeling as light as a feather. Don't be too afraid of the ingredients. The soups are assembled to order, and the friendly and helpful English-speaking waitstaff will be happy to omit any ingredient that offends sensitive Western sensibilities. One even asked, when I ordered the "Noodle soup with Pork, Ground Pork, Pork Liver and Fish Ball," if I was cool with pork liver. Yes, but thank you for double-checking! Soups are only moderately hot even when ordered spicy, but an array of chilis, powders and sauces on the table make for endless customization.

Thai Boat Noodle at Sapp Coffee Shop

After some further research into the noodleries of Thai Town, I found myself going back less than 48 hours later to Thai Town Noodle, a couple of blocks away from Sapp, across from Jumbo's Clown room. Don't bother looking for the sign unless you can read Thai... only the address is clearly visible in the window.

This classic Asian lunch counter defines the term "less is more." It is, if anything, less conspicuous than Sapp, a tiny, clean, spare room with four or five tables and seating for another half dozen at the counter. Two kind, generous, friendly women, even less unapproachable than the staff at Sapp; a menu clearly written and with pictures in English above the kitchen counter. And it costs less too, all the noodle dishes here being five bucks. On my first visit, they threw in a free soda to welcome me. I sat in noodly heaven, watching some locals cheering on the Thai handball team in a grudge match against Vietnam, which led to a jovial discussion of Thai vs. Vietnamese noodles. The only thing not-less at Thai Town Noodles is the food. The Thai Boat Noodle bowl pictured above is treasure trove, bits of tender beef of various sorts lurking behind, around and under the perfectly cooked rice noodles. The Duck Soup... to die for. And when I went back a second time, to take my wife, one of the kind ladies smiled, said "you forgot this?" and handed me the Esquire magazine I had accidentally left behind two days before. (I was thrilled because there was a great interview with Mohamed El Baradei that I wanted to save.) Talk about service!

It is pouring rain this week. Perhaps your rain gutters need mending, or roof needs patching; you're headed to the Hollywood branch Home Depot or OSH, or perhaps a movie at the Arclight. You want something, quick, warm and comforting?

Get on the Boat.