I had one of the worst meals of my life on a date at Yai #1. Back then they were simply known as “Yai.” They were also known for their “boat noodles.” For the uninitiated, boat noodles include things like liver and tripe. Our young, inexperienced palates just were not ready for that kind of adventure. Not that I’ve ever been a fan of liver. My date said: “This tastes like Lake Erie!” I asked him what Lake Erie tasted like. He replied, “Exactly like this,” and pushed the bowl towards me. So when I was listing Thai restaurants, I made a note of Yai. I wanted to make sure I did not end up there again.
I invited my seafood-loving friend out for my most recent Thai adventure, so I chose a place called Thai Seafood. She misheard me and–wouldn’t you know it–somehow we ended up at Yai. There is a Yai #2 in the shopping center at Hollywood and Vermont. The second outpost is a world apart from its flagship. Large, bright, clean and modern, the space is inviting in an IKEA kind of way.
I was up for anything. It had been 10 years since I last visited Yai, and this place looked like another world. It turned out to be the most 50/50 multiple personality dining experience of my life. We either loved the dishes or hated the dishes. Some of the service was apathetic at best, and other employees went waaaaaay above and beyond the call of duty. Yai #2 had a split personality.
By and far, our favorite dish was the crispy catfish. It was deep-fried to perfection, reminding me of New Orleans-style. There were few bones, and the skin was thin and edible (and easy to pick off it you are a little particular, like some people). The catfish was mild, but came with a fiery-hot dipping sauce.
The Yai glass noodles would also be worth a special trip back. Soon. The noodles were not in the least bit greasy – not too much sauce, not too little sauce, Just right. The plate was generous with tofu, egg, and veggies. The sauce was very flavorful but gentle with cooling lime, a nice relief from the fire of the other dishes.
Now things start going downhill. Up for a little more adventure than in younger days, I had ordered the boar curry. At this point it is very hard for me to make a fair evaluation, since I have never had boar curry anywhere else. Yet. The curry was complex and multi-layered. You could cook anything in a red curry like that and it would be delicious. You could probably cook people in that sauce and it would be pretty good. And I just might try it. The bits of meat I could pick out were very similar to moose, and if you’ve never had moose, then brisket would be the best comparison. The little, round Thai eggplants were also delicious. But most of the dish was comprised of chewy strips of fat. I asked our friendly host, Jay, if the dish included any organs, or if there was really that much fat on the boar. He said it was only boar meat. It’s just a really fatty animal. Later I asked my friend why they don’t just trim off the fat and she said, “They must like it.”
The last and most shocking dish was the ever-popular papaya salad. This papaya salad came with salted crab, which sounded so delicious. When the dish arrived, there were little purple crabs, shells uncracked, lounging around in the shredded papaya. Then my friend took a bite and made this face:
Now for those who have confronted me on the issue of salty crab, let me explain that my friend here is an archeologist who goes to countries you would never even consider visiting, climbs in disgusting holes and digs up dead people. And she eats whatever her local hosts feed her. She is not exactly a wilting violet. I took a bite of the crab and when the fumes hit the back of my throat I was afraid to close my mouth and have those flavors touch my tongue. My friend had to force me to close my mouth, and my entire body was inundated with salt. It was the saltiest thing I have ever had in my life. Even saltier than salt. Mixed with a fermented fishiness, it was one of the most intense things I have ever eaten. I have eaten worse-tasting things, but this was like “Thrill Seekers.”
We tried a little papaya to get the taste out of our mouths and whoa, the salad was intense with vinegar and fish sauce. You would think with something as intense as that crab, you would want a refreshing salad, not pure vinegar. But it was as if the various components of the salad were in a war for dominance. It was so intense we started having fun photographing each other taking bites of it and grimacing.
Our new friend, Jay, explained that the crab comes pre-brined from Viet Nam. He was even kind enough to bring out the package to show us.
Check out that sodium content!
Since my first experience at Yai #1 ten years ago had been so bad, and since my experience at Yai #2 was so mixed, I thought it was only fair that I go back to Yai #1 before writing this review. I placed my order to go, then walked over to 7-11 to get cash out for the cash-only Yai. My ATM card was not in my wallet. It was not in my purse. It was not in a box or with a fox, here nor there, nor anywhere. I had already placed my order. I was screwed. I had to slink back over and start counting out my crumpled up ones and the change from my car. It was so humiliating, I wanted to die. But everyone was so nice to me. When the other diners saw me counting quarters, they offered help, but I declined. Finally I came up 4 dollars short. Can you believe I actually carry around 15 dollars worth of change?! They insisted I take the food, and I insisted I will be back with the 4 dollars, and you can bet I will add on a hefty tip.
For the Yai #1 to-go I ordered my favorite dishes from Yai #2. The cellophane noodles were just as good, if not better. They are my new favorite.
I also ordered the catfish, which was slathered with fiery red sauce instead of served on the side. It was expertly fried, but they had not removed the pin-bones as the other place did.
I also ordered my alternative to phad thai, spicy mint leaf noodle. Made with the same flat noodles as pad see ew, it is usually called lard na or some variation thereof. But most places just call it “chicken noodles.” Theirs were first rate, with the variant of ground chicken instead of chicken pieces. The chicken was ground up with the herbs and spices, which all mixed in with the noodles like a bolognese sauce and made it a far superior dish.
The chicken green curry was not too unusual. I liked the bamboo shoots and Thai eggplant, two of my favorite vegetables. The curry was rich with coconut milk, but it was hotter than hell. An excellent meal all around. And I will definitely be back soon. Because I owe them 4 bucks.
Yai Restaurant 5757 Hollywood Blvd. LA, CA 90028 (323) 462-0292
Yai #2 1627 Vermont Ave. LA, CA 90028 (323) 644-1076