Restaurant Review #121: Sanamluang Cafe, North Hollywood

Indian curry noodles with beef

If you're never been to Sanamluang Cafe before, you may be thoroughly confused when you walk in. Do I seat myself? Do I order at the counter? Is there a real menu with words, or do I have to pick one of those numbered photos and hope for the best?

I read good things about Sanamluang Cafe on Chowhound. Anyone who maligns the Valley for not having good food has clearly never been to North Hollywood, the third mecca of Thai food (after Thailand and Thai Town, of course).

I was really confused when I first walked into this restaurant. There was no sign of a hostess, and behind the counter, instead of a regular menu, there were rows and rows of backlit (lightbox-style) photos of food. My plan was to just order vegetarian pad Thai and fish cakes like I always do, especially because with a purely pictorial menu there was no way I'd be able to safely pick something new. Fortunately, they do have real menus. Just walk up to the counter and get a menu, and if you're staying, someone will point you to a table. The photos aren't the best, but they are a nice complement to the menu descriptions and a good way to avoid stupid patron questions about what a dish is like.

It was a cold, rainy day, and the metallic tables and chairs were freezing. In spite of that, my friend couldn't resist ordering a cold drink. Neither of us understood the waiter's heavily accented description of the pink drink photographed but not named on the menu. He ordered it anyway, which was a very proud moment for me. I love it when my adventurousness rubs off on formerly conservative eaters! Our waiter was friendly and very accomodating of our non-Thainess. The hostess made me mad though when she seated a large party with several children right behind our table, when there were many other empty tables available.

Mystery drink with boba

The drink was pretty sweet, then sort of sour but not puckery while still retaining its sweetness. I understood that it was some sort of fruit drink, though I couldn't identify the flavor (or what fruit was supposed to be represented by the very late 80's pink food coloring).

Pad Thai with tofu

I didn't order fish cakes because they only had shrimp cakes. Did you know that you can often tell how authentic a Thai restaurant is by the prevalence of both fresh and dried shrimp on the menu? If you're allergic, note that there is an extra charge for shrimp in most dishes at Sanamluang Cafe, which means you'll be safe if you order the basic plate. If you're really allergic though, you probably don't belong in a Thai restaurant (and I'm very sorry).

I did get my pad Thai, though. In general, my chief complaint about pad Thai is that the noodles are never chewy enough (except at Krua Thai and Cholada), and this was no exception. The tofu, however, was the real star of the dish. Instead of the usual dense squares, the dish came with big hunks of fantastically spongy bean curd. I'm getting hungry again just thinking about it. Where can I buy this stuff, I wonder? The dish was pretty saucy, but there really isn't a right way to make pad Thai--every cook has his own version, and part of the fun is that it tastes different everywhere. It's also a great comeback when people make fun of you for ordering it--just make up something about how you're on a mission to find the best rendition of pad Thai in Los Angeles, and make sure to cite my previous sentence. There is a reason why pad Thai is so popular--it's good! Maybe I do come across as a stereotypical foreigner every time I order it, but at least I enjoy my meal.

Barbecued pork with rice

I'll admit that I don't like pork to start with, but the main reason I didn't like the barbecued pork dish was because the sickeningly sweet sauce tasted like gingerbread cookies. There were also some pieces of something sort of spongy and salty that I couldn't identify. Could it have been deep fried pork fat?

To try something new, I ordered Indian curry noodles with beef. Once and for all, I was forced to concede that I don't like coconut milk based curries anymore. Panang curries used to be my favorite--I even learned how to make a mean one at home (thanks, Mae Ploy), and now I can't stand them. Sigh. That aside, the dish still wasn't great, since the noodles were clumped together and I kept splashing my clothes with broth each time I tried to pull them out. The flavor of the beef reminded me of beef stroganoff. The dishes here are super-cheap though (about $6-8), so anyone but the poorest college student can afford to take a chance on a second dish.

Dining room

Sanamluang Cafe is located in a strip mall with very tight parking (a parking attendent helps direct traffic, though). It looked like a nightmare when we pulled up, but we somehow got a spot right away. Of all the authentic Thai restaurants I've been to in LA, almost all of them have the same horrendous parking situation. Why is that?

The interior was funky with lots of neon. It reminded me of Toi, or maybe even Krua Thai, but significantly sleeker thanks to the metallic tables. Incidentally, eating off of a metal table gives the impession that things are extra clean. Most restaurants that are this cheap don't pay much attention to decor. I wouldn't take a date here or anything, but it's far from a hole in the wall.

Try to avoid sitting in the far corner by the drink coolers--it's noisy. Make sure to check out the bathrooms though, which are consistent with the restaurant's decor, and quite a trip.

They also have insane hours. They're open until 4:00 AM!

Sanamluang Cafe
12980 Sherman Way
North Hollywood, CA 91605
10:00 AM-4:00 AM

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