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Katt Goldsmith of Spicy Sugar Thai
Photograph: Jesse Hsu for Time Out

How this self-taught Thai chef turned a motel diner into a destination for fiery Isaan-style cuisine

Once owned by the Jitlada family, Spicy Sugar Thai now serves northeastern Thai specialties you can’t find almost anywhere else in L.A.

Patricia Kelly Yeo
Written by
Patricia Kelly Yeo

Kattareeya “Katt” Goldsmith, née Chaboonmee, grew up without running water or electricity in a rural village in Roi Et, a tiny province in northeastern Thailand. After attending college in Bangkok, she built a career in corporate sales and eventually landed a job as a country manager for Stanley Black & Decker. It wasn’t until sometime in her 30s that she met her future husband, David, a video assist technician and L.A. native who grew up in the entertainment industry. (Her father-in-law is, believe it or not, the Most Interesting Man in the World.) 

After moving to L.A. in 2016, Goldsmith started a catering business geared towards film sets, a decision provoked by the various co-workers who kept asking David where he’d gotten the homemade lunches he'd bring to work. Her exemplary cooking skills have led to the latest act in her colorful life story: chef-owner of Spicy Sugar Thai Mid-City, an exceptional six-month-old restaurant located in an unlikely place—a former motel diner near La Brea and San Vicente. While Goldsmith also offers a crowd-pleasing menu of fusion dishes and takeout classics, it’s her homestyle menu of Isaan-style cuisine full of heat, funk and flavor that makes Spicy Sugar Thai really stand out from the crowd.

Spicy Sugar Thai Exterior
Photograph: Jesse Hsu for Time OutThe motel-anchored space most recently housed a Brazilian restaurant.

Goldsmith also maintains Spicy Sugar’s original location in Long Beach, which the self-taught chef purchased from Jitlada’s Jaratporn “Sugar” Sungkamee in 2021. Both locations are still named after Sungkamee, the daughter of the late Suthiporn “Tui” Sungkamee. The elder Sungkamee was the chef whose Southern Thai specialties first catapulted Jitlada to national renown back in 2007. That was the year the late Jonathan Gold, then writing for L.A. Weekly, reviewed the place two months after a semi-anonymous person named Erik M. recapped his visit to Jitlada on a Chicago-based message board. 

As with the case of Jitlada, Spicy Sugar Mid-City got onto my radar thanks to an online forum. In this case, it was Food Talk Central. An anonymous user named AlwaysHungry claimed Spicy Sugar had started serving “some of the best Thai food in the city,” and I couldn’t resist checking out if such a claim would hold up. After sampling nearly the entire menu, I can tell you it does, though you need to know what to order. 

Spicy Sugar's somtum tad (center). From clockwise: Khao soi, pork namtok, mango sticky rice, chef Katt's special fried rice, green curry dumplings, duck larb and whole grilled squid.
Photograph: Jesse Hsu for Time OutSpicy Sugar's somtum tad (center). From clockwise: Khao soi, pork namtok, mango sticky rice, chef Katt's special fried rice, green curry dumplings, duck larb and whole grilled squid.

Like Jitlada, Spicy Sugar takes a two-pronged approach to Thai cooking. To broaden the restaurant’s appeal, Goldsmith serves takeout classics familiar to most Angelenos, some of which are recipes carried over from the days of Sugar and Tui. What’s far more interesting, however, are the esoteric regional dishes popular mostly among the Thai community—at least until now. In Spicy Sugar’s case, the lesser-known cuisine hails from Isaan, a part of Thailand that includes Goldsmith’s home province of Roi Et.

The northeastern region borders the country of Laos and offers similar cuisine to Thailand’s lesser known neighbor. A few Spicy Sugar dishes remind me of the recently closed pop-up, Yum Sະlut, which has started vending at Hollywood’s atSiam Night Market on the weekends. Among Spicy Sugar’s half-dozen variations on papaya salad, also known as somtum, you’ll find two Lao-style versions made with fermented fish or salted crab. Neither are for the faint of heart on their own, though they’re balanced out nicely when served as part of somtum tad, a family-style platter that combines crispy pork, boiled eggs, rice noodles, fried fish, shrimp and pork sausage. 

Spicy Sugar Thai somtum tad
Photograph: Jesse Hsu for Time OutFull of texture contrasts, the somtum tad is a delightful way to get a little bit of all things Isaan cuisine.

Having visited almost every restaurant in Thai Town, plus other notable Thai restaurants across the city, I can honestly say there are no other places in L.A. executing Isaan-style cuisine at the same level as Spicy Sugar. “All the Isaan food [on the menu] is mine,” says Goldsmith, when asked how she’s changed the menu since taking over. She also takes credit for the Mid-City location's pad thai (Long Beach customers are attached to Tui's original recipe) and a Chinese sausage fried rice that’s become popular among Mid-City locals. Goldsmith offers two kinds of flavorful larb, both of which crackle with spices and toasted rice powder. There’s also the succulent pork namtok, which features slices of juicy pork jowl tossed in a larb dressing and served with refreshing slices of cabbage.

Larb is all well and good, though readily available at most restaurants in Thai Town, not to mention Luv2Eat Thai and, of course, Night + Market, which is widely credited with popularizing the dish. Where Goldsmith distinguishes herself most is with seafood dishes, including Spicy Sugar’s miang pla pao, a whole grilled (or fried) tilapia served with rice noodles, lettuce, fresh herbs, various aromatics and not one, but two dipping sauces. The chunky peanut sauce and garlicky, bright green nam jjim, or chili sauce, add textural contrast to each lettuce-wrapped bite.

Spicy Sugar Thai grilled tilapia
Photograph: Jesse Hsu for Time OutThe miang pla pao can be made with grilled or fried fish.

“That’s my recipe,” she adds. Normally, nam jjim is blended smooth, but she prefers to leave the sauce slightly chunky. Next comes squid served grilled and whole, with the same bright green nam jjim, or in the form of calamari fried with tasty squid eggs. Blood clams and shrimp can also be tossed into som tum or yum-style, which uses the same fish sauce dressing but ditches the sliced green papaya. According to Goldsmith, her Thai customers go crazy for blood clams, though I found the tiny molluscs a little too iron-tasting, even for someone familiar with Mexican pata de mula.

On the same menu, the soup section offers more rustic dishes like gaeng tai pla, a tangy soup-like vegetable curry that can’t be served milder than “medium spicy,” which to me is already almost unbearably hot. Ant eggs, painstakingly sourced, make an appearance in rustic Isaan-style soups made with bamboo slices and pak wan, or star gooseberry leaves. “Growing up, we used to go into the jungle to gather ingredients [for this soup],” she says. The protein-packed ant eggs have an earthy, almost liver-like flavor. I can’t say it’s for everyone, but it’s definitely unique.

Jim jum (Thai hot pot) at Spicy Sugar Thai
Jesse Hsu PhotographySpicy Sugar's jim jum comes in both medium and large sizes. The medium easily feeds two, and the large can feed up to four.

What will likely appeal more to non-Thai palates is the tom zaap—a lemongrass-rich soup served with your choice of beef tendon, pork ribs or chicken feet. I would recommend against the chicken feet, if only because they’re uncracked, unlike the ones served at dim sum, and difficult to eat. Originally, Spicy Sugar’s Isaan-style menu went by the name of “zaap sap dak,” which literally translates to “delicious painful butt” in Isaan, a language more closely related to Lao than Thai. Goldsmith laughed when she first translated the phrase for me, which alludes to the trouble your GI tract might be in after such an all-out spicy meal.

There’s also the comforting jim jum, or Thai hot pot, which uses a milder, herbaceous broth as the base for platters of vegetables, tofu, pork, beef, chicken and seafood. The first time Goldsmith saw me ordering seafood dishes like these, she introduced herself in Thai. Up until this point, hardly anyone outside of the Thai community has ordered any of these dishes, which is simply a shame. Delicious and unique in a city that’s home to some of the best Thai restaurants in the country, Spicy Sugar is deserving of your attention—even without the involvement of Sungkamee, who still visits the restaurant from time to time with her aunt, Sarintip “Jazz” Singsanong.

Spicy Sugar Thai interior
Photograph: Jesse Hsu for Time OutGoldsmith gave the former diner plenty of personal touches.

If you’re in the mood for milder, more familiar fare, Spicy Sugar serves a few fusion-style highlights like chicken katsu with panang curry and vegan-friendly green curry dumplings, as well as a creamy, dutiful take on khao soi. Mid-City residents have already taken notice of Goldsmith’s takeout classics here, and those dining in are likely to see delivery drivers and locals in sweatpants traipsing in for takeout orders. What I recommend you do, however, is take the time to dine in; the most outstanding dishes, like the somtum tad, grilled tilapia platter and Thai hot pot, are best served fresh. 

We gave Spicy Sugar Thai Mid-City five stars. For more thoughtful ordering tips and what else to expect from a meal, read our full review here.

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