There's something deeply satisfying about finding a dish that makes you happy—a go-to plate or bowl that you find yourself ordering time and time again. In the world of Thai restaurants, that dish is often pad Thai, a dreamy plate of noodles that satisfies your guiltiest indulgences. LA has an exceptional and vibrant Thai town, with restaurants that serve top-notch pad Thai. But why stop there on the menu?
In order to draw you out of your comfort zone, we'll take you on a journey of five Thai dishes from some of LA's best Thai restaurants. The dishes range from approachable to challenging, but one thing is certain: All reveal flavors and nuance sure to make you put your pad Thai order on the backburner—for now.
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Pad prik king consists mostly of green beans (rejoice, Paleo crowd), and who doesn't like green beans? But this dish is prepared in a way you probably haven't seen before: A quick stir-fry ensures the beans are hot but tender-crisp (none of mom's mushy boiled veggies here) and you can choose your accompanying protein—steamed or fried tofu for a vegetarian dish, or chicken, pork or beef. A mellow red curry paste and fragrant lime leaves give the dish a sunny flavor, while peanuts add a welcome crunch. You may also encounter some sliced carrots and bell peppers. Order some sticky rice on the side and you're in business. It's delicious at Palms Thai Restaurant (shown above) and Yai Restaurant.
The Thai approach to pumpkin reveals a great understanding of the squash's flavor and texture and it's a welcome reminder of how delicious it is, with pumpkin spice dominating the holiday season and all. As a curry, it's found as a warm, soupy vegan dish over rice, or as a Southern Thai dry curry in a crispy pork stir-fry (which works well with tofu, too). It also transforms a fried soft shell crab into a gentle yet thrilling crunchy treat, and brings out the sweeter notes in red snapper for a fully actualized curried fish experience. Try the vegan Pumpkin Cashew Curry at Soi 7, or multiple exquisite Southern Thai dry curries with pumpkin at Jitlada (show above).
Many Americans think of French food when they envision dining on duck, but Thai cuisine expertly brings out the fowl's depth and richness in a soup that ultimately feels light in the belly. The broth has a hearty quality but with a simplicity that makes it accessible—sometimes it packs some heat, but that's adjustable too. Slivers of duck are decadent and satisfying, while light and springy noodles (whether rice- or egg-based) balance the soup. A smattering of scallions, shallots and bean sprouts usually top the bowl for a satisfying crunch. Rodded Restaurant (shown above) does a delicious version with wontons. Want to really go wild? Try the duck feet stew at Ruen Pair.
This dish brings the funk. It's usually prepared with ground chicken or pork, sliced basil, Thai chili paste, garlic and preserved eggs. Sometimes called century eggs (they're not that old, promise), they came about before refrigeration, because in Thailand's hot and steamy climate a method was needed to make eggs last. During preservation, the eggs are kept in a mix of clay, ash, rice hulls, salt and quicklime anywhere between several weeks and months. The resulting texture is similar to hard-boiled eggs with a tasty black, creamy yolk and "whites" that are little like a black stained glass window. The finished dish has a pungent depth not usually present in Western cooking, with a sharp earthiness similar to an aggressive blue cheese. Give it a whirl at Sapp Coffee Shop (be sure to try their Thai iced coffee, too), Ruen Pair or Yai Restaurant (shown above).
Facing an entire fish can be intimidating, but fillets are easily lifted off the spine via fork or large spoon. You might find that a fish served intact feels like a celebration: the presentation is dramatic, and it's easily shared. This dish is incredibly festive, served elevated on a fish-shaped plate with a flame underneath to keep it warm, a tangle of aromatics perched on top. The plum soup is more of a lemongrass broth presented on the side, a savory hot stock to keep adding to the fish (and then your plate). Perched atop rice with a spoonful of hot broth and ginger, celery, onion and cabbage, it's both decadent and light at the same time. Go for it at Thai Patio or Palms Thai (shown above).