Monday, May 5, 2008

Bhan Kanom Thai

posted by jonathan liljeblad
Bhan Kanom Thai
Location: 5271 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, CA. 90027
Food: Thai, but just dessert
Just take out, with seating sacrificed for delicacies
Cheap ($3-6 per dessert pack)

Most Westerners are oblivious to Thai desserts. Tell them about Thai food, and the first image in their head is usually of pad thai or pad kee ew or chicken satay or papaya salad. The idea of Thai dessert is a completely alien concept.

Which is actually a bit odd, considering that Thailand has a rich array of sweets in their culture, and accord it a dedicated place in their national cuisine. In some tourism circles, it's even promoted as one of the primary experiences for tourists--you can get a basic orientation at sites like, Thaiways Magazine, Phuket Magazine, and Enjoy Thai Food. Thai desserts, called khanom in the Thai language, can be traced in the historical record to at least the Sukhothai period (1238-1350), and are known to have become popular during the Ayutthaya period (1350-1767). The creative explosion in Thai desserts are popularly attributed to a woman named Marie Guimar Phaulkon, who was a mixed-race (Portuguese, Japanese, and Bengali) wife of First Minister Constantine Phaulkon during the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and introduced the ingredients of her heritage (particularly eggs and sugar) to expand the creativity available in formulating Thai dessert recipes.

To be fair, there are major reasons why authentic desserts are frequently left off the menu or ignored by most Thai restaurants: it's highly perishable, and it can be difficult to make. Much of the desserts require fresh ingredients, which when combined quickly lose their unique textures and flavors whether left on the counter or placed in the fridge. Personally I've noticed that they tend to lose their original qualities within a day, maybe less if it's warm or humid. This brief window of culinary enjoyability makes it difficult to justify the hours of preparation time, which frequently involve multiple ingredients layered in complex sequences with careful details in delicate chemistry.

Which is unfortunate, because Thai desserts, if fresh, and done well, are heaven.

They can be sweet, but not overly so. They can be filling, but not overly so. They can be heavy, but can also be light. They can be rich, but also simple. They can be overwhelming, but also subtle. There are desserts that are like bread, or cookies, or cakes, or pies. There are creams, gelatins, custards, tortes, dumplings, steamed, baked, or fried. There is fruity, there is sugary, there is syrupy, there is crunchy, there is chewy, there is smooth, there is melt-in-your-mouth and linger like the daydream of a tropical beach on a lazy warm day.
One of the better places in Los Angeles to view the diversity of Thai desserts is Bhan Kanom Thai. Located in Thai Town near the Thai Plaza, it's dedicated solely to Thai desserts. So much so, in fact, that you'll find yourself hard-pressed to make your way into the store and through the aisles to even see the selection--and when you do, chances are you'll have to make your way through the logjam of locals who know what they want and are trying to make a quick stop and the visitors who have no clue and are trying to figure out what they're looking at, let alone how to buy.

Most of the items in Bhan Kanom Thai are sold in lots, with an order being a packet of 4-6 individual bite-sized items. Most Westerners won't be able to tell what's in them--there's no way to identify the ingredients from the appearance or from the labels; you'll have to make do asking the staff behind the counter (assuming things are not too busy).

Not to fear. Pretty much everything is good. And as long as you remember it's dessert, and are happy that dessert is supposed to be some type and texture and flavor of sweet, you won't go wrong.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Ruen Pair

posted by jonathan liljeblad
Reun Pair
Location: 5257 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, CA. 90027
Food: Thai, on the more authentic side
Ample, friendly, casual
Moderate ($10-20 per person)

Arguably the most central figure in modern Thai society is the King. Known as Bhumibol Adulyadej Rama IX, His Majesty (hereinafter HM) looms large politically, culturally, and socially, holding a status that most Westerners would see as exceeding veneration and rising to near-deity. You'll see his picture or likeness placed liberally in Thai establishments, and his reign spoken of in reverent tones.

It's usually understood among Thais that no one--not even clueless Westerners--should speak negatively about the King, or do anything that might be deemed disrespectful. There's stories of foreigners in Thailand who've been prosecuted under criminal law for defacing images of HM (reference:

While this level of veneration may seem odd to Westerners coming from societies devoid of royal traditions (i.e., the United States), it doesn't seem so odd when you learn a little bit more abou thim. The Thai King is a rather remarkable individual. A cursory review of his Wikipedia entry (reference: will show that he is not only well-educated, well-respected, and well-known for his humanitarian efforts, but also is an accomplished jazz musician (he once played with Benny Goodman), a world-class sailor (he won a gold medal in the 1967 Southeast Asian Peninsular Games), and skilled engineer (he actually holds a patent). In addition, he is rather singular in having overseen Thailand's transition to democracy during the 1990s, and has remained committed to it during the country's course in the years since. In this light, it's apparent that the reverence of the Thai people for their King is with justification, and comparable to the same affection held by the British for Queen Elizabeth.

You'll see this adoration for HM in every Thai restaurant. At least, you will if it's authentic--if it doesn't, then it's a clear sign it's aimed at a cross-over audience, and a pretty big hint that the place is trying to lure Westerners. This isn't a bad thing...unless you are looking for authentic Thai food, of the kind frequented by Thai locals and accepted as the genuine article by Thai expatriates.

Fortunately for Los Angeles, the latter kind of restaurant is common in Thai Town. You can't go a block without running into an establishment reflecting "real" (i.e., "non-Westernized") cuisine. You know what this means: signs and menus primarily in Thai, waiters and cooks with barely legible English, food that you can't identify but that you find is to absolutely die for. The trick is to find a "real" place that's actually "good" (i.e., wherever the locals go, but never tell clueless Westerners).

Ruen Pair falls into the latter camp. Situated in a plaza across from the more popular Thai Patio, it has a decidedly non-descript exterior with very muted signage. But don't let this fool you. While the busier, flashier Thai Patio is heavily frequented by non-Thais, the less-busy, but still thriving, Ruen Pair is the place where the locals go...and never tell clueless Westerners.

The food at Ruen Pair is good. Not the classic spicy artillery assault typically associated with Thai cuisine, but definitely very much among the better exemplars of what Thai food is all about. There is spicy food, but the focus here is on taste. Particularly taste in a non-assuming, casual, matter-of-fact manner that is geared for people who just want their Thai-palates satiated.

The ambiance matches the food. It's not fancy. But it's tasteful. Good enough to bring a guest, but not so fancy that it'll require bringing out the bling bling wardrobe to impress them. As befits a genuine Thai establishment, the menus are primarily in Thai, with requisite English subtitles. There are no pictures, so you'll have to make do trying to translate the items with the staff, who are decidedly helpful in a supremely courteous kind of way. And of course, there's all the images of HM that you could ever possibly want, with even one frame holding images from his childhood, adolescence, youth, middle age, and current status.

The better items on the menu, surprisingly, may not be the food. The drinks are, if the limit is held to 2 words, unique and good. Dry the longan tea. Ditto the hibiscus flower tea (yes, that's right, hibiscus flower). Amazing. Especially on a blazing hot day.

And of course, sample the menu. If you can't figure anything out, and can't understand what the waiter is saying, just close your eyes and pick something. You can't go wrong.

Sunday, August 12, 2007


posted by jonathan liljeblad
Scoops Ice Cream
Location: 714 North Heliotrope Dr., Los Angeles, CA. 90029
Food: Ice cream, of the indie aficionado kind
Not bad, not good (just bored trendy indie bums)
Light, spare, to the point
Moderate ($2-4 for scoops)

I originally heard about Scoops via word-of-mouth, in the vein of a whispered rumor spoken with hushed tones normally associated with sacred religious miracles. Then I saw it discussed in the LA Times in a review of Los Angeles ice cream shops that described in near-raving (of the spiritually possessed kind) language. Curious as to what would inspire such ardorous passion, I researched the place on the internet and found out that there's been an awful lot written about Scoops by the dedicated internet masses (reference: Yelp: Scoops), almost all of it in fervent (I would verge on the word "rapturous") emotion.

Surveying the waves of ecstasy engendered by this place, I figured I had to see what all the talk was about. I consider myself an aficionado of ice cream: I've had pretty much every kind of frozen creamy dessert imaginable (including the European and Asian kinds), and sampled untold numbers of flavors, and visited legions of ice cream parlors, and my love for ice cream is great enough that even though I'm lactose intolerant I am more than willing to suffer for the sanctity of the art that is ice cream. As a result, I view my palette as broad and deep when it comes to this particular refreshment. I figure it'd be an insult to my sensibilities to have missed out on a place as spoken about as this.

I should note that Scoops should not be confused with L.A. Scoops. Scoops is located next to Los Angeles City College (right across the street from the Bicycle Kitchen) near Thai Town, and is owned by a man named Tai Kim. L.A. Scoops, despite the similarity in name, is located by the Mitsuwa Market in Little Tokyo, and is owned by a husband-and-wife couple (don't know their names).

We went to Scoops on the Sunday after National Ice Cream Day. Remiss that I had almost forgotten the holiday, I figured the best way to redeem myself and absolve my sins was to visit the first location on my foodwise list of priorities (reference: Jonathan in the Distance: National Ice Cream Day). We chose to go in the evening, around 7 pm, after finishing a large dinner in Thai Town.

Ice cream parlors, based on my experience, tend to attract attention in a certain number of ways: ambience (i.e., making the experience enjoyable), variety (i.e., a wide number of flavors), quality (i.e., excellent taste, which is a highly subjective measure), and novelty (i.e., uniqueness of flavors).

I can describe Scoops relative to these criteria. The ambience itself is pretty bare. There's not much in the way of pretty interiors or furnishings, and seating is spare to the point of being an afterthought. If the word spartan was ever an adjective, Scoops would be one of the nouns connected to it. It's pretty clear that the attitude of the place is ice cream, and only ice cream, straight and to the point, no frills and no luxuries and--more importantly--no distractions or diversions.

In terms of variety, Scoops holds a position that depends on your point of view. One of the things I was told was that Scoops had a lot of different flavors, as in a plethora. However, not all the flavors are offered all the time. In fact, at the time we visited, we counted only 12 flavors of ice cream. The discongruity is explained by the way Scoops works, which is that they have a rotating array of flavors (I've been told endless), whose selection is determined by the owner (basically, he offers whatever he feels like offering).

Regarding quality, the ice cream is good. Very good. You can talk about ice cream quality in terms of what I call sweetness (too much or too little), intensity (too rich or too bland), butterfat content (too heavy or too light), creaminess (too rich or too bland), or hardness (too hard or too soft). All I can say about Scoops is that the ice cream is made by someone who has learned, loves, and lives ice cream, and it shows.

As for novelty, this is the hallmark of Scoops. Its reputation is built on offering odd, unusual, unique flavors. The ownership is constantly experimenting with new and different flavors on a daily basis. The day we visited we saw pineapple, guava, cinnamon rum, tarot ginger, and cappucino fudge. I've been told in the past they had avocado, cardamom, curry, and even bacon (!!!). Scoops prides itself on its willingness to experiment, and even has a whiteboard where customers can pose their own suggestions for the shop to try. Check out the photo below:
Overall, it was a good experience. The one hitch was that we found out that there is only a limited supply of ice cream made each day. As a result, even though the store hours are Monday through Saturday, 12 noon to 10 PM, Scoops is really open only as long as the ice cream lasts, and closes when it runs out. I'm guessing this is part of the charm of the place, and a marketing ploy to drive daily demand (you want to get there before the ice cream runs out). When we got there (around 7pm), most of the bins were empty, and the remaining few (I'm guessing 4-5 of the total of 12 bins) were almost to the bottom--and this was on a Sunday, when you'd think there'd be fewer people going out for the day!

Advice to visitors: get there earlier in the day, because by evening the odds are that the supply will be long gone.

Is it worth it? Dude, do you even have to ask? Does a surfer go for good waves? Does the opera have people who sing? Does the pope live in the Vatican? If you're into ice cream, this place is tantamount to a shrine. Learn it, love it, live it.

Sunday, August 5, 2007


posted by jonathan liljeblad
Rosalind's Ethiopian Restaurant
1044 South Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles, CA. 90019
Good (but very rich and very heavy)
Fair (tinge of motherly condescension)
Dark, relaxed
Price: Moderate ($10-15 per person per dinner entree)

It's a little known curiousity that the histories of Rastafarianism (i.e., Bob Marley's religion, and the source of all the dreadlocks) and Ethiopia are inseparably intertwined. Rastafarians subscribe to the view that Ethiopia's Emperor Haile Selassie I (1892-1975) was the Messiah. The word Rastafari itself comes from the Ethiopian title Ras Tafari Makonnen
, the pre-coronation name for Haile Selassie. Rastafarians asserted that Selassie was the 225th descendant from the dalliance of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, making them part of the children of Israel, and that Selassie's royal title (King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Lion of the Tribe of Judah) matched the Messiah's name prophesied in the Book of Revelations, making him God incarnate. Rastafaris go so far as to deny Selassie's death, on the principle that God cannot die. For quick reference, check out the Wikipedia entries: Rastafari and Haile Selassie.

Given such devotion, it is no wonder that Selassie in 1963 granted 500 hectares of land in a location named Shashamane to Rastafarians wishing to return to their faith's professed ancestral homeland. While much of the land following Selassie's 1974 overthrow was confiscated by the new government, Rastafarians still see this place as a spiritual center. Bob Marley's remains, for example, were rumored in 2005 to be exhumed and reburied there. You can reference the Wikipedia entry for

The Rastafari-Ethiopia connection is evident in most of the shops in Little Ethiopia, which is a short stretch of 3 blocks on South Fairfax Avenue (as in south of Wilshire, but north of Olympic) in Los Angeles. Walking along the storefronts, you'll find dreadlocked employees offering menus of Ethiopian food in conjunction with Ethiopian cooking ingredients, Ethiopian & Jamaican travel guides & maps, flags (the colors of Rastafarianism is identical to the colors of the Ethiopian flag: red, green, and yellow) of both countries, pictures of Haile Selassie and Bob Marley (who now appears to be a patron saint for Rastafarians and their sympathizers everywhere), reggae music CDs, Rastafarian manuals, incense, candles, and what suspiciously looks like (but is never declared or described as) bongs.

The Rastafari atmosphere can be overwhelming. It saturates Little Ethiopia, to the point that a visitor is tempted to believe they're strolling down Little Jamaica. It can be a little disconcerting for someone aspiring to find something about Ethiopian culture.

Thankfully, a few of the stores manage to emphasize their Ethiopian roots. Rosalind's is one of them. Situated near the epicenter of Little Ethiopia, Rosalind's is one of the nicer businesses among the array of neighboring restaurants, and apparently aims for a slightly more refined, up-scale environment true to its Ethiopian roots. There's little in the way of Jamaica or Rastafarianism here; everything is Ethiopian, from the walls (replete with pictures, paintings, and tapestries of Ethiopia) to the furnishings (which, in short, is best described as refined tropical sans vegetation).

We went on a Sunday evening, around 6-7 pm, with the aim of enjoying a meal on the way to a movie. Parking, as always, is a challenge along parking-deprived Fairfax Avenue (options: parking on the residential streets off Fairfax, or parking several blocks south near lower-income housing). The restaurant, while busy, had immediately available seating. The ambience was the kind perfect for a casual night on the town: lively enough to enjoy a good laugh over stories, quiet enough to hear and carry on a conversation, relaxed enough to feel no sense of rush, and humble enough that you can forego business attire (tourist casual seemed the code for the day). In a way, it was kind of like the stereotypical image of the laid-back Rastafarian.

The light was a little low, and the decor was a little formal, but I suspect that was because they were setting the mood for the night's live music (there is a prominent stage in the restaurant). The entertainment probably came much later, because only a little equipment was set up, and they had only just started to install it when we left.

The food itself was good. Ethiopian food can be an eye-opening experience for the uninitiated. My experience with Ethiopian food is that it is heavy in spices--not so as to be hot, but more to be rich and heavy; it sits in your stomach, clings to your tongue, and definitely leaves a taste on your lips. It is comparable to India in the flavors: cumin, coriander, garam masala, tumeric, paprika. This is likely all vestiges of history, as East Africa was part of the ancient Indian Ocean trade routes stretching from Southeast Asia to Madagascar (reference: and NEH Summer Institute).

The other surprise for initiates is that Ethiopian food is eaten without utensils. Instead, you're supposed to eat with your hands, using the flat, spongy bread called injera to scoop up the food to eat. Injera has a texture tantamount to a think linen rag, with the difference between that it is 1) edible, 2) more absorbent, and 3) slightly sour. Alone, it is an acquired taste. Mixed with the sauces running from the meal, however, and it can become a lesson in succulence. To learn more, you can review the Wikipedia entry: Injera. Rosalind's helps visitors out by having an entire menu page dedicated to an explanation of how to eat the Ethiopian way (see picture at right).

The meal itself can be selected from a range of entrees provided a la carte on the menu, covering a range of meat dishes (mostly beef, goat, or chicken) and vegetables (lentils, barley, rice, and the usual assortment of green foodstuffs which we couldn't clearly identify). There's a healthy selection of drinks (non-alcoholic and alcoholic), as well as appetizers and desserts (none of which we sampled--the main course was just too filling, read below).

We initially tried to choose 3 separate entrees on the menu. The waitress, however, clearly exhibiting a matronly demeanor and the full appearance and poise of polite but rapidly deteriorating patience, looked us over with all the condescension of a mother dealing with an indecisive child and coolly recommended that we should try the sample plate. She even wrote it down in the order tab as we waivered before committing to the meal.

It was just as well. Check out the picture:
It's not clear from the picture, but the plate was huge--more than 2 feet in diameter. The entire plate was covered in a single piece of giant injera, atop which were scoops of menu items (meat and vegetables). At first, we thought the servings were a little small (it was between 3 hungry men), but rapidly found out that we weren't even going to be able to finish the plate.

We had no complaints about the meal. It sat like a rock in out stomaches, but that's pretty much what you expect with Ethiopian food. We wolfed down plates of injera as we cracked '80s era (think Live Aid) Ethiopian jokes to each other. Of course, we spoke low enough to be discrete--although I'm sure the table of Anglos behind us could easily hear (but they didn't complain, so we just kept right on going).

Do we recommend the place? Of course. Is it the best Ethiopian Restaurant in Little Ethiopia? Who knows.

But who cares. The real fun is just taking turns going to each shop on the street and checking them out in comparison. Honestly, I couldn't tell the difference in food between Rosalind's and any of the other restaurants in Little Ethiopia that I've tried. The only difference--and perhaps what you're really using as the deciding criteria in choosing between any of the shops in Little Ethiopia--is ambience and decor.

For a laid-back Sunday evening, Rosalind's pretty much fit the need. And it did so while conveying the sense of sampling Ethiopia, without confusing it with Jamaica.

For more info, check out Rosalind's website (