At first glance you couldn’t tell from the pad thai that Night + Market Song is different from the neighborhood standby where you get yours. There it is, a nest of light orange rice noodle ribbons and bean sprouts with crosscut green onions. But once you notice the heap of roasted pepper flakes sitting where other restaurants pile the red cabbage and carrots, you’re asking yourself questions: Are the noodles thicker? Is the tamarind a little more pronounced, the sauce tighter?
Chef Kris Yenbamroong goes to a lot of effort to intensify ingredients. He fries the skin-on peanuts to draw out a roasted depth and gives the bird’s-eye chiles an hour-long sear before they’re pulverized and added to the wok-based noodles (pad means “quick stir-fry” in Thai). The experience is the same with the green papaya salad: You know the dish—but you don’t. It has no add-ons that might otherwise hide the muted lushness of the tropical fruit; rather than use syrup made from table sugar, Yenbamroong combines lime juice with palm sugar for a more understated note that harmonizes with the chiles sprinkled on the pale green strands.
The 32-year-old chef is not out to show anyone up. That neon Thai Cuisine sign in the window—the T curved upward like a temple roof—is a badge of allegiance with the city’s myriad mall spots. But he is out to show that there is another way of doing Thai, one that is uncompromising without being unyielding. Above all, Song highlights Yenbamroong’s curiosity as he explores the cooking of Thailand’s north and northeast. The mountainous north pushes into Myanmar, and the simmered concentration of the region seems encapsulated in the yam jiin gai, a chicken hot pot crowned by a tangle of herbs that wilt into a shrimp paste broth. Yenbamroong also roams through the Laotian-inflected Issan cuisine of the northeast. That explains the complimentary bowl of roasted peppers teased with fish sauce and accompanied by airy shrimp chips. He’s nicknamed the horarb a “catfish tamale,” a banana leaf holding a payload of chile-laden catfish and pork fat. Another Issan classic, the Ping-Pong-ball-size sausages known as sai krok, are filled with fermented pork and rice, releasing something musky and enticingly off the flavor wheel you’re used to.
Yenbamroong’s parents opened their own Thai restaurant, Talesai, on Sunset in West Hollywood more than 30 years ago. When their son returned from NYU film school in the early aughts and settled into the kitchen, he wanted to make food that was more, well, authentic than Talesai’s. But customers weren’t so keen on the change in format; not everyone stuck with the place. Yenbamroong remembers those as dark days. Had he ruined the legacy of an institution that stood as a gateway restaurant for many Angelenos? Then in 2010, he took the vacant space next door, where he could project movies on the drywall and plate up a multidish spread, as meals are eaten in Thailand. He called it Night + Market. Here he was free to investigate how the nuances of sai uah—the herb-pork-and-lemongrass grilled sausage from the city of Chieng Rai—might dock with the brambly ones of, say, a Loire gamay vinified with nothing but its native yeasts.
Yenbamroong offers the same spicy sausage at Night + Market Song, which he and his fiancée, Sarah St. Lifer, launched in May seven miles east along Sunset in Silver Lake. A naturally sparkling Loire chardonnay from Noëlla Morantin or, for that matter, a Thai iced tea, goes great with the slices of grill-scored sausage. The saucer of blistered peppers and cool cucumber disks provides the perfect contrast. Song’s interior, with its wood folding chairs and vinyl tablecloths in the Day-Glo orange dining room, is practically as spare as one of those mom-and-pops where glass steins with Singha logos are chilling in the fridge and a few quarters rest by the Buddha figurine’s feet. Bamboo sheathes the serving station, and a plastic-bead screen separates the glaring pink entryway from the rest of the room. The winks are knowing: In addition to the poster of the Thai king (as if this were a standard restaurant), the walls sport a vintage one of Cindy Crawford in Daisy Dukes and a doodled-on portrait of Al Gore (a remnant of when this building was a squat). Hip-hop drifts through the air, Yenbamroong almost keeping the beat in the kitchen as he hacks fresh galangal root for the catfish larb.
Song offers five variations on larb—that Issan salad built around chopped fish or meat, with cabbage, herbs, and red onion—and others often appear on the handwritten photocopy that lists specials. Larb gai, featuring chicken and lime, has a punchy directness; larb pla duk, the most Laotian of the quintet, sluices minced catfish and lemongrass in a primordially intense paste of fermented fish. A dusting of rice powder barely tames it.
The menu is freighted with nam prik dishes as well; Yenbamroong loves them because they embody the casual, gather-round eating that’s his ideal. The “pork ragout” version is marvelously complex, the acidity of the cooked-down cherry tomatoes particularly bright when a helping is piled on a pork rind. That off-the-cuff layering of sensations (what makes Thai cooking so fascinating) reaches a high point with the patiently crafted curries. His rendering of curried noodles involves a daylong process that begins with buckets of peeled ginger roots that are slowly roasted before turmeric and shallots are added. The hot pot gaeng pa nok saap, its deep red, oily surface as lustrous as a river in a Conrad story, is thick with tiny Thai eggplant, young peppercorns, and minced chicken. The menu warns that the dish “can be done SPICY only,” but slurping the broth, I realized the beam of heat is the necessary counterbalance to the delicious richness.
Not that Yenbamroong is dogmatic about heat. The kitchen will modify some of the dishes, and a few, like the crab fried rice, aren’t spicy to begin with. But the chef wants to educate diners who might not be accustomed to eating more fiery food. On the menu he provides an explainer suggesting that diners order several items so they align with and redirect one another. Eaten alone (Thais tend to use a fork or their hands but rarely chopsticks), that papaya salad might register too high on the Scoville scale for some. But when you drape it across the battered chicken thighs, it makes for a profoundly satisfying combination. In fact, that pairing works better for me than the nam prik maengda, which, though made with mashed water bugs, is kind of bland.
An eagerness to delve into the squishier corners of Thai cooking is part of Yenbamroong’s m.o. The James Beard nominee has a winning persona; in his tats and thick-framed glasses he comes across as both street-smart and studious. He’s as likely to cite Sandor Katz’s The Art of Fermentation as he is to cook for a buzzed crowd at Coachella. I can’t help thinking that when he’s writing “beef bile” on the menu, he’s doing so with a big grin. Of course those unique dishes would probably seem completely natural at a market stall in Thailand with the roar of motorbikes in the background, but on Sunset Boulevard I can still love their subtle refinement. That’s not lime sharpening the angles of the pork blood and MSG luu suk; it’s fresh lemongrass.
Lest Yenbamroong appear to be a prisoner of his own authenticity, he makes a concerted effort to move in the opposite direction, toying with expectations. “Supermarket cake,” the sole dessert, is a wedge of chocolate or red velvet (outsourced, true to its name) that lies on the table like a corn-fed linebacker on the beach at Phuket. Granted, a cup of jackfruit and chipped ice—what I like to get after tripe and liver soup at Pa Ord Noodle #3—may not sate a sweet tooth, but at least having the option of, say, ripe mango and sticky rice at Song would seem more in keeping with the tone of the restaurant.
He’s more on point with the platter of “party wings,” which brings on a sugary rush—and oooh, how great they go with a cold beer. Another terrific drinking dish is the “toro,” strips of tender glazed and grilled pork neck. The chef’s curiosity leads him to consider Thailand’s recent past with “Khao Pao American, Thai Strip Club Fried Rice.” It’s not my favorite, but it certainly gives its own ragged salute to PX-sourced staples, with raisins, frozen peas and diced carrots, and “blossoms” made from hot dogs, a fried egg capping the whole. Cloying, gummy, insincere, the accompanying red sweet-and-sour sauce is the very taste of Bangkok R&R.
But I prefer Yenbamroong’s cooking when it’s more straightforward, a taut style that despite its casualness reflects detailed care. After years of enjoying Thai food as a known quantity, I’ve found myself excited to learn about new flavors when I go to Song. The first time I tried the larb tod was reason enough to return. Fashioned from a mix of pork liver and blood (and as robust as you’d imagine), the meat is deep fried as slider-size patties, the juices oozing onto a bed of shredded cabbage that’s been scattered with fried garlic bits and pork cracklings. One taste and I realized that for full effect, you need to get all of it into your mouth at once, but a fork isn’t going to do the trick. So I reached into the bamboo steamer, pulled out a ball of sticky rice with my fingers, and assembled a mouthful by hand. I’d never done that in a Thai restaurant, and if anybody was looking as I took a bite, I couldn’t tell; my eyes were closed.
3322 W. Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake
Best dishes: Pork “toro,” Issan sour sausage, gaeng pa nok saap (jungle curry hot pot), pork liver larb
tod, papaya salad, curried noodles
Drinks: Beer and wine; soft drinks and Thai iced tea
Noise Level: Not uncomfortably loud
Kid Friendly? If they’re adventurous
Price Range: $7 (pork “toro”) to $15 (gaeng pa nok saap)
Hours: Mon.-Thu., 5-10:30; Fri.-Sat., 5-11
Reservations: Not available
Credit Cards: All major