Larb-ground meat tossed in lime vinaigrette mixed with ground toasted rice
Driving down Sherman Way, you're unlikely to be enticed to stop at Swan Thai, located across the street from the 99 cent store in a creamy orange strip mall where the mostly empty parking lot is strewn with trash. Swan Thai may do most of its business through delivery and takeout, because the food is very good, but at prime lunch time on a weekend only two tables were occupied.
The atmosphere feels a little grungy--it's partly that the parking lot gives off an icky vibe before you've even entered the restaurant. If you're feeling skeptical, check out the menu taped to the window--the huge variety of dishes and the great prices will convince you. Inside, you'll find red vinyl booths, embroidered gauzy cream curtains, and dark green tablecloths topped with plexiglass. Fake wooden window panes with mirrors instead of glass decorate one wall. A strong but not particularly cold air conditioner rustles the curtains and the leaves on a small tree near the door as well as providing the only sound in the restaurant besides the clanking of dishes in the kitchen and the chatter of other diners. Replacing the stained ceiling tiles and flourescent lighting would do a lot for the atmosphere, but this is a low-budget place that's strictly about food.
It's been ages since I've had larb, a salad made of ground meat and a spicy lime juice dressing. Swan Thai has quite a few larb options: fish, duck, beef, pork, or chicken (duck and fish are more expensive). Even though I don't like pork, I like pork larb. If you don't like to eat raw onions, you'll have to do a bit of picking to get through this dish. I suspect that the unappetizing name (larb sounds a lot like lard) may be a turnoff for some, but if you can get past it, you're in for a treat.
Traditional fish cakes blended with red Thai curry paste and green beans
Most fish cakes taste about the same to me (with the exception of Krua Thai's, which are loaded with green chiles). These were predictably good. The only thing that was notable about them was that they were cut into smaller pieces than usual.
Pad kee mao - stir fried noodles with onions, bell pepper and mint leaves in spicy sauce
Swan Thai's rendition of pad kee mao has plenty of thick, chewy noodles and flavorful beef. A few more peppers and mint leaves might be good, but for those who don't like their noodles contaminated with veggies, this dish is a great bet. I asked for medium spiciness, but what I got wasn't spicy at all (they did put some chiles and Sriracha on the side that I could mix in). I liked that it wasn't too greasy, unlike Krua Thai's version, but I liked the spiciness and the texture of the beef at Krua better.
Almost everything on the menu is either $6 or $7, with the most expensive item coming in at a mere $12. Everything you see here cost me just $21, and I have several days' worth of leftovers. To save even more money, take this tip from a fellow foodie on Chowhound: ask for the $2 menu.
The service was friendly, the food was fast, and even though I got my food to go, it was still presented nicely when I opened the takeout containers. Wow!
I suspect that there may be a link between Swan Thai and Sri Siam because their food seems quite similar and they have both modified their business cards to cover up the "closed Wednesdays." Does anyone know?
What are your favorite dishes at Swan Thai? Leave a comment! I'll definitely be back and I'd love recommendations.
Swan Thai Restaurant
12728 Sherman Way (just east of Coldwater Canyon)
North Hollywood, CA 91605
Swan Thai Hours 10:30am-10pm daily
Free delivery within 4 miles, $10 minimum