If Penn’s Thai House weren’t east of Sunset Station in an obscure suburban mini-mall, it would enjoy wide acclaim by now.
Perhaps the comely Thai chef, Penn Amarapayark, prefers it this way. Penn, as she insists on being called, is a modest sort who comes to work in jeans, with her hair pulled back. She’s ill-equipped for big crowds, anyway, since she does all the cooking herself.
What makes her restaurant stand out is the purity of flavor in most of her dishes, and the fact that she does nearly everything from scratch. Take her yellow curry, for example: It’s a marvel, not made from a restaurant-supply house paste, but rather from coconut milk and spices, as it is in a Thai home. It is, hands down, the best Thai curry in a city crowded with competition.
And that’s how most of her dishes are made. She marinates chicken overnight for her Thai barbecued chicken, served off the bone, but still redolent of coriander, galangal and lemongrass. Larb is a salad, of sorts, of minced pork or chicken with rice powder, peanuts and chili. It’s eaten in the hollow of a cabbage leaf—so good you long for more.
The bottom line here is that some of us have it, and some of us don’t. This woman just flat-out has it. Do we really need to know more?
Just don’t expect anything beyond the good food. The décor couldn’t be simpler, although those who like camp will appreciate a North Woods pattern on the back of the restaurant’s blue vinyl booths. This is a bare-bones place—no beer or wine (though she does allow BYOB); service performed by whomever of Penn’s Thai lady friends is free that day; and food is slow coming from the kitchen.
She doesn’t skimp on the coconut milk when she makes her absurdly rich tom kah soup, which she’ll prepare with either chicken or shrimp. Appetizers such as the tender Thai beef jerky come with spicy brown and red dipping sauces, laced with chilies and possessed of a sneaky heat. One of the best salads is som tum (a.k.a. papaya salad), done either Lao-style, with tiny crab, or Thai-style, which is spicier, and with shrimp. There are components such as tomato, long bean and garlic in this dish, plus an exorbitant amount of chopped raw garlic. The salad is intended to be mixed with sticky rice and is eaten with Thai barbecued chicken, the classic Isarn meal from northeast Thailand.
Penn also has a way with noodles. Her pad see ew, stir-fried flat rice noodles with egg, Chinese broccoli, black-bean sauce and a choice of meat or shrimp, are hand-pulled and hand-separated.
Why do we care? Because most local Thai restaurants don’t bother with this detail; their rice noodles are delivered in clumps, and stick together. The result is that Penn’s noodles are lighter and fluffier.
If you call her in advance, she’ll make nam kao tod, a.k.a. crispy rice salad, and also the dish that made that Las Vegas Thai institution Lotus of Siam famous. But if you like your peanuts mixed in, you’d better tell her in advance. She also can do sup nor mai, an incendiary slippery bamboo salad, also off-menu. My palate is still ringing from the experience.
Hitch up the wagons, then, and head out to the nether regions. Aren’t you in an adventurous mood, anyway?