Pad kee mao
It's almost impossible to go wrong with a Thai restaurant in North Hollywood. True, no one on Sherman Way knows how to drive, there's almost no parking, the lots are full of potholes and puddles and trash, and there are scary-looking men hanging around sometimes. But hit any strip mall in the vicinity of Coldwater Canyon and what should really be called Sherman Boulevard and you're likely to find a Thai restaurant serving some of the best Thai food you've ever eaten (if not some of the best food you've ever eaten, period).
On top of that, it's cheap as hell. If you want to treat yourself to a luxurious meal but can't really afford it, don't go to Melisse and order an appetizer; go to Bua Thai and order five entrees. The cost will be similar, but only one will leave you with a full belly and leftovers for days.
I'll make no bones about it: Thai is one of my favorite cuisines, yet I eat it so infrequently that I find myself always ordering my old favorites instead of branching out and trying something new. On the plus side, I can compare Thai restaurants pretty well since I always order the same staples: pad Thai, pad kee mao, tom kha, and sometimes (but not this time) fish cakes.
Let's start with the dish that always makes me feel like a cliche when I order it, but I can't help it because I love it so much and haven't yet figured out how to cook it at home without ending up with a glob of tasteless/burnt/excessively tamarindy rice sticks. While pad Thai is a dish of infinite permutations, there are basically two schools of pad Thai in Los Angeles: the ketchup school, found primarily in whitish locales like Santa Monica, and the peanuty school, found primarily in North Hollywood. I'm making broad generalizations here, yes, but the ketchup kind has an orangeish-red (or in a worst-case scenario, pinkish) color and a slightly tangy flavor, while the peanuty kind has a translucent brown color and is super sweet. I will confess to not really liking the latter, which Bua Thai serves, because of my distaste for particularly sweet things (I probably should have squeezed that lime over the top), but the chewiness of the noodles is divine.
Tom yum is essentially just sweet and sour soup (which, by the way, should not be confused with Chinese hot and sour soup, a totally different concoction). It consists of a light chicken broth infused with galanga and kaffir lime leaves (the sour), however much spice you specify (the hot), mushrooms, cilantro, and your choice of protein. I always get the chicken, and it always tastes like nothing more than bland, boiled chicken, but Bua Siam's broth is particularly rich and particularly (but pleasantly) sour, having the sort of umami one normally associates with pho. Minus the ever-present chicken issue, this is one of the best bowls of tom yum I've ever had. I was also glad that they had both small and large bowls, so I didn't have to order the soup for my entree like I did the last time I went out for Thai (in San Francisco).
Rivaling tom yum for my favorite Thai dish is pad kee mao, which I discovered during a visit to Krua Thai when I decided to branch out slightly from my old standbys. This dish consists of fat rice noodles, a bit of palm sugar, red bell pepper slices, Chinese broccoli, mint, and the usual protein of your choice (I got beef). The beef seemed like it had been cooked separately from the rest of the dish; its flavor was more reminiscent of hamburger than anything Thai. Krua Thai's beef is more flavorful and better integrated into the dish, but their version is also very greasy. The noodles, while not as chewy as the pad Thai, were still one of the best forms of comfort food I know. The palm sugar makes them slightly sweet, but not too sweet. The Chinese broccoli had a fresh crunch and a pleasant hint of bitterness and the red bell peppers balanced that with their slight sweetness. This is also a spicy dish, which is another reason why it is my favorite noodle dish, beating out other possible contenders like pad see ew.
The restaurant is casual but not dingy (unlike Swan Thai). A mix-and-match assortment of no more than ten finished pine tables (all of which appear to be from Ikea) take up most of this narrow restaurant, but the flaming tangerine and lime green walls give the place character and make it seem bigger than it is. Our server was friendly, our food arrived promptly, and my water seemd to magically refill itself. The dishes are elegantly presented on square white plates, though Bua Siam's serving sizes appear to be a little smaller than its competitors.
The restaurant is particularly hard to spot from the chaotic street; the best way to find it is to look for the large and colorful Cha Chaa Thai, pull into the same parking lot, then peruse the storefronts until you find the right address number.
Bua Siam makes it to the top of many foodies' lists for good reason. Within hours of finishing my meal, I was already dying to go back!
12924 Sherman Way
North Hollywood, CA 91605
Bua Siam website