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Food

Bua Siam: The Perfect Strip Mall Find

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The strip mall is perhaps Enemy Number One on the list of any urban-architecture appreciator: ugly, merely utilitarian, a breeding-ground for chain fast-food joints and Payless shoe stores. it's often mentioned in the same breath as freeways and silicone as tops on the list of Things To Loftily Despise About Los Angeles.

The real Los Angeles foodie, however, knows that the magic words "well, it's this place hidden away in a strip mall" most often precede some tantalizing lead or revelatory insight into local cuisine: every really great sushi place I've ever been to has had as non-descript an exterior as any nearby liquor store. Same goes for great Mexican places. And this is most certainly the case for Bua Siam, a remarkable and remarkably cheap Thai restaurant out in the near-desolate landscape of Roscoe and Coldwater Canyon in North Hollywood (very close to Wat Thai Temple).

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The most immediate impression you get as you walk into this tiny storefront (located at a corner lined with the most amazing array of ethnic delis and shops - although the Jack N' The Box attracts the most traffic), is that it's a cool, calm retreat from the blare and glare of the traffic outside. Immaculate, identical seashell sculptures line the white-washed walls, and the whole place has a feeling of sophisticated cool that's a welcome surprise in the middle of a hot day - although they stay open til ten.

A pleasant waiter delivers your menu, which is almost as extensive as Jerry's Famous, listing a dizzying array of regional Thai and other Asian-inspired appetizers, noodle bowls, soups, meat and vegetable dishes. All are priced to fit the strip mall - you could easily splurge on a starter and hearty main for $10/person, but that's actually not that best bargain you can get. Bua Thai also offers a menu of small dishes, almost like Thai tapas, priced at $3/plate - and I could only get through about half of the three options I chose (great leftovers, dude!).

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Highly recommended are the pickled pork sausages, served with a crispy wedge of cabbage, alongside a heaping pile of peanuts and cilantro. Spoon a little fish sauce (spiked with tiny peppers) and maybe some crushed red pepper or chili-garlic sauce: pair each bite of sausage with a bite of cabbage. It's one of those freak culinary moments of cross-cultural serendipity - the flavors of pork, salt, cabbage, and fermentation strike a comfort-food chord with someone like me, whose own racial (Anglo-Nordic) memory chimes with the tastes of pig and pickles and vinegar and pepper.

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Bua Thai is famous for its Thai Spaghetti ($3 for the small plate, $6-7 for the entree): available in both carnivorous and herbivorous versions. It's rice vermicelli in a thick, unctuous peanut sauce, made brighter with fresh herbs and (highly recommended) large doses of chili sauce. You can get the traditional Pad Thai, or Pad Kee Mao, a vegetarian version with wide flat noodles and lots of sauteed greens ($7).

Also recommended are hot and sour pork noodles, with the ubiquitous and beloved cilantro, bean sprout, and peanut; as well as boat noodles in five-spice broth. Rice cakes with shrimp sauce or a Thai-flavored sukiyaki are menu options, as well as chicken rice and larb.

Another great route to go is noodles - try the noodle soup with pork balls, ground seasoned pork, and spicy lime sauce. There's absolutely nothing in the world that captures the combined essences of fast food, street food, and home-cooked food more than a bowlful of noodles. I don't care if you put tomato sauce, chili sauce, meatball sauce, goat sauce, okra sauce, whatever sauce - if it's a bowl of noodles, it just makes sense to eat when you're aching of heart but poor of pocket.

Heck, if you're with three or more people, try at least eight or ten different small plates - for $3 a pop, it's more than worth it to sample everything that Bua Thai has to offer. They've got stacks of Thai-language newspapers in the corner and racks of fish-flavored condiments and snacks on sale in the back. Bua Thai is one of those secret-held discoveries, an oasis of cuisine that I'm hard-pressed to share with you - this place is so out-of-the-way that even the all-seeing culinary hawks over at Yelp haven't reviewed the place yet But I know when you go there, you'll feel just as much the local, and become just that much more appreciative of strip-mall cuisine.

Bua Siam
12924 Sherman Way
North Hollywood, CA 91605
(818) 765-8395

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All photos by Zach Behrens for LAist