Isaan, the northeastern region of Thailand, is the poorest area of the country, beset by droughts, floods and depleted soil, making for a hard-scrabble life as far as eating goes.
Yet somehow the food is seriously great. Isaan cuisine is more sour and spicy than what is found in nearby Central Thailand. Som tam (green papaya salad) — a.k.a. the dish I’d most like to be stranded on a desert island with — is from Isaan, where it is served with sticky rice rather than the usual steamed jasmine rice. Sticky rice is the staple crop I’d learn to grow on my island, in case you didn’t know. If it wasn’t for the whole girls-getting-married-when-they’re-as-young-as-14-for-the-dowry thing, I’d wish I had been born in Isaan, so I could have spent as many years as possible eating the food.
So I was excited for Khun Dom, a Thai restaurant in a barren region of Melrose, an area beset by graffiti, exhaust and generally awful traffic, making for a hard-scrabble life as far as eating goes. The place secretly specializes in Isaan-style salads, a fact apparently unknown to most of the patrons, who load their tables with pad Thai, fried wontons and the other usual Thai menu suspects.
With that in mind, Rob and I ordered three salads: beef nam tok (grilled beef salad), nam kao tod (pork and crispy rice salad) and som tam with dried shrimp, along with the essential sticky rice. After the rice arrived, wrapped neatly in foil, the beef nam tok appeared, accompanied by a plate of Thai basil, Chinese long beans, cabbage and other greens — the perfect thing to munch on between fiery bites of beef. (It wasn’t until my first visit to Thailand that I realized why my dad used to often chow down on, say, a fourth of a head of cabbage alongside his stir-fry and rice. I always just thought he really liked cabbage.) The nam tok ended up being Rob’s favorite dish, the grilled beef dripping with spicy lime dressing and meaty juices.
The nam kao tod was the highlight of the meal for me — I loved the gingery bite and the slick, crispy bits of rice — but what made it even better was following up each mouthful with a chomp of fresh greens and a chunk of perfectly cooked sticky rice. Isaan synergy! The rice was a restaurant sticky rice revelation, delicately chewy, without the unfortunate soggy spots often found at the bottom of bowl.
The only disappointment was the som tam, which was overly sweet and not spicy at all. Next time I’ll try the blue crab som tam instead of the dried shrimp.
There’s no alcohol on the menu, but I bought a beer at the shady liquor store next door, which the waitress kindly opened for me and poured into a frosty glass. Sitting in Khun Dom sipping a cold beer and munching on nam kao tod and greens could almost make me forget I didn’t go to Thailand with my sisters this summer. I’ll just pretend it’s my own Isaan desert island.
4681 Melrose Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90029