Tucked off behind a bank of freezers in a Thai restaurant supply store in an industrialized area north of Chinatown, the lunch counter at LAX-C is easy to miss. It's dwarfed by towering shelves laden with fifty pound bags of rice, its entrance often blocked by piles of woks as big as kiddie pools. You might find an enormous cart of pig legs abandoned in the aisle a few feet from where customers sit contentedly eating plates of pork and bamboo shoot curry. The restaurant itself is bare bones, with harsh fluorescent lighting, a few vinyl booths, and a dusty plastic plant thrown in for atmosphere. It's the Thai equivalent of a food court in a suburban Costco. And it's home to some of the best Northern Thai food in LA County.
Lunch counters are common in Thai supermarkets. They're a way to bridge the gap between the fluorescent emptiness of the American supermarket and the chaotic bustle of farmers, butchers, and street food vendors that Thai immigrants remember from back home. But at LAX-C, you won't find standard stacks of pre-made cold noodles and sticky rice. Instead, depending on the day of the week, your options include an array of organ meats and curries, laarb, fried noodles, plus ped pa lo, a LAX-C specialty of duck stew studded with fried tofu and hard boiled eggs.
The lunch counter at LAX-C has been open as long as the market itself, and is devoted to showcasing the store's vast array of products. Everything they cook with here can be found on the shelves, from frozen curry leaves to those pig legs. Behind the counter is the store's fish market, and, if you ask nicely, they'll fillet and fry up one of the fish from their tanks for you. But LAX-C is mostly notable for its delicious and affordable renditions of Northern Thai street food, made more enjoyable by the fact that you can eat them next to a walk-in freezer filled with bitter melons.
When you ask the affable Thai women behind the counter what's in each of the platters, she'll point and tell you whether it contains fish or pork, or that there's a dollar surcharge for the catfish fillets, but won't tell you the names of the dishes or what they taste like. They're busy, and they have no time for your silly questions, no patience for people who don't know what they want. It's lucky, then, that you can get a couple of main dishes, a dessert, and a drink for under ten dollars—and the potential financial risk is certainly worth the culinary reward.
In a rare display of impartiality, one of the women behind the counter told me that the green curry was her favorite thing served at LAX-C, and I can't say I disagree. The curry sauce is almost brothy—thin but creamy—with a subtle smokiness that pleasantly cuts through the sweet, nutty flavor of the coconut milk. The little round eggplants in this dish aren't meant to be cooked into mushy submission. Instead, they're firm, nearly crunchy, and offer a bright vegetal flavor, enhanced by fresh red and green peppercorns (some of them still on the stem) that pop between your teeth. The curry's spiciness is masked a bit by the coconut, so the aromatic punch of the curry paste creeps up on you slowly: one minute you're happily eating, each bite of curry masking the burn of the last, and the next your curry's all gone and you're frantically shoveling down rice, eyes watering. Sugary Thai iced tea is a good remedy for the pain.
Don't stop at the curry, though. Order the laarb, and you'll receive an enormous portion served over short grained white rice. Laarb is one of the most ubiquitous Thai takeout dishes, but LAX-C's version is more intensely flavored than most: savory and complex, the fish sauce funk augmented with the earthy tang of pork blood. Dotted with slivers of spicy pickled red and green chillies and smashed cloves of garlic, it's a rich and porky dish balanced with hits of briny and sour spice. Handfuls of floral Thai holy basil cut through the meat and add a sweet herbaceous note.
The catfish, which is dense and and a little fishy, doesn't hold up well to the heat of the steam table. Instead, choose the morning glory. Called phak bung in Thai, this is one of the most popular vegetables in Thailand, and is often served stir fried with massive amounts of minced garlic and preserved soybeans. LAX-C supplements its morning glory with slow cooked pork, adding a savory richness that's cut with sharply aromatic fresh ginger and lemongrass.
With a bit of vinegary pickled chili brine splashed over the top, the dish is like a Thai interpretation of collard greens. It's a little spicy, but not overwhelmingly so— reassuring comfort food for a grey Los Angeles fall afternoon.
Weekends are the best time to visit Lax-C. The lunch counter is less busy than it is during the week, and the ladies have enough time to make special dishes, like Hor Mok Pla, curried fish mousse steamed in little banana leaf packets. The mousse is creamy and dense, with a springy texture similar to firm tofu, and peppered with translucent bones. It tastes mostly of sweet coconut milk and red curry paste, with a briny undercurrent of fish—perhaps it's not a dish for the squeamish but it's one I'd certainly return for.
Stands selling Thai street food that pop up outside in the parking lot on weekends, too. You can start your meal with an order of papaya salad, crunchy and fresh, soaked with lime juice and fish sauce, and studded with preserved shrimp, peanuts, and mouth-melting green chilies. There's usually an old man grilling meat on a converted oil drum, the best of which are sausages stuffed with a blend of pork and fermented rice. The skin is crispy with rendered fat, and the interior tender, a compelling blend of savory and sour, the vaguely alcoholic bitterness of the fermented rice cutting through the richness of the pork.
After lunch, come back for the khanom krok: coconut cakes fried in a heavy iron pan pockmarked with little hollows, sandwiched together into spheres. They're crispy around the edges with a puddinglike center, milky and soothing if your mouth is still burning from lunch.
LAX-C's khnom krok are so good that there's often a line, and you might have to wait fifteen to twenty minutes for your order to be made. If you can't stand the wait, or if you're at LAX-C on a weekday, you don't need to skip dessert. My favorite option at the lunch counter itself is the sangkaya, a delicate coconut and egg custard served over black sticky rice. The rice is sweet and toothsome, a pleasant counterpoint to the meltingly soft coconut custard, which has a silky texture and a nutty aftertaste. It's a looker, too, with the egg yolk-yellow custard standing out against the purple rice. Save a little room if you can—more likely, you'll need to order one to go.