Almost one year ago to the date, I wrote a long-winded sentimental post about my newest discovery – Nakkara on Beverly that was a five-minute walk from my new apartment in West Hollywood.
At the time, I was convinced that the Americanized Thai restaurant would become a constant fixture in my dining out/dining in regimen. I would pick-up pork pad see ewe on evenings when cooking seemed too big a chore, or tuck in for a steamy bowl of the ruby curry with immaculate slivers of chicken when I wanted to escape the noise that one of my then roommates paraded through our three-bedroom apartment.
Yet some how eight months passed by without a single return visit to the little blue Thai restaurant around the corner. I took Nakkara’s proximity for granted and didn’t feel compelled to rush back for dishes that I knew to be on the menu of almost every Thai restaurant around the corner. I thought it would always be just a five-minute walk or phone call away, so ignored it in favor of repeat visits to Pizzeria Mozza, Nook, Fraiche, Tavern, and LudoBites.
Then, this past January I moved a mile and a half from the restaurant – a distance that in Los Angeles is no longer considered “walking distance.” My chances of sneaking over to Nakkara on a random week night were even further diminished, and I had almost forgotten about the place that was supposed to be “my local spot” until I received an invitation from KevinEats to join him and some other bloggers for a media dinner courtesy of the restaurant last Wednesday evening.
I was almost ashamed walking into the chummy one-room space the night of the dinner. I sheepishly took my seat across from Danny of Kung Food Panda, who had traveled all the way from Pasadena to get there, and next to Christina from Food je t'aime, who had taken a cab from UCLA. I was the “local” of the group that also included Kevin, Amy from Roaming Belly, and Felicia from the Food Ledger. I was the one who should have been there first, and who should have been welcomed back with smiles and waves from the eager wait staff as a familiar face – a regular.
Instead, I felt like a newcomer – especially when I discovered that none of the dishes I’d sampled on my previous visit were on our carefully selected menu for the evening. Clearly my first experience at the restaurant was not an authentic representation of the “Thai-inspired cuisine,” and did not showcase Chef Kevin Sukccharoen’s creativity or his excitement to infuse the flavors of his homeland into the dishes.
But I was there on Wednesday evening – present and ready to explore the menu with my tongue (and ever-ready camera). I was going to find the soul of the corner restaurant.
“It tastes like a Samoa!” I chirped after my first bite of the Nakkara Mieng Kham, a lettuce wrap stuffed with toasted coconut, cashews, dried shrimp, diced lime, ginger, Thai chili, red onion, and a sweet mieng sauce.
My dining companions smiled at me – a newcomer in more ways than one that evening in terms of my exposure to Thai cuisine. I was then instructed to take the rest of the wrap down in one bite to allow all the flavors to be experienced at once – the sweet from the coconut and sauce, the acidity from the lime, the slight bitter tang of the lime rind, and the heat from the ginger and chili. It was a lot for my mouth to absorb, but the first course seemed to be carefully chosen for us. Featuring every different “taste,” it awakened our senses and primed our palates for the rest of the 13-course feast.
Of our next four starters, a Spicy Filet Mignon Skewer, a Garlic Lamb Chop with crispy garlic and lime, Peking Duck Rolls with hoisin sauce, and the “Big surprise!” featuring steamed shrimp, squid and crabmeat in a red curry sauce, the “Big surprise!” was the stand out. While I enjoyed the frothy green curry sauce that accompanied the tender filet skewer enough to drink it like a shot, the lamb chop was a little over cooked for my tastes, and the slender slices of duck breast got lost in the roll because its texture was so similar to the rice paper wrap. I craved a crispy bit of skin or a hint of smoke from an intense roasting to liven up the whole package.
In contrast, the “Big surprise!” blew me away with its refined flavors and presentation. I loved the way the shredded crab meat soaked up the well-balanced, pleasantly spicy red curry sauce – taking on the role of rice. When my dining companions offered me the last “surprise,” I eagerly accepted. This is the dish that I might use to justify a mid-week escape from my home kitchen and quinoa surplus.
Of the two soups we were offered – the Shrimp Tom Yum or the Chicken Tom Kha – the shrimp was the decided favorite. The delicate hot and sour broth infused with lemon grass, kaffir lime leaves, galangal, fresh lime and chili, was a more thoughtful execution and lighter interlude in our feast. While the same ingredients were also used to flavor the coconut milk in the Chicken Tom Kha soup, the intensity of the coconut milk masked their unique properties.
To further cleanse our palates before the main courses, we were served a subtle Green Papaya Salad with shredded green papaya, cherry tomato, greens beans, chili lime dressing. I joked to Danny that I would “finally be able to show off my chopsticks skills” with the Vietnamese-esque dish and then proceeded to immediately drop one of the tomatoes on the floor. I would have liked to rescue it from its place between my and Christina’s feet (it added nice acidity to the spritely veggies and papaya), but my germaphobia continues to be a detriment to my ability to abide by the five-second rule.
I retired my chopsticks when the main courses arrived at the table – I didn’t want to risk dropping anything, especially the deep-fried Soft Shell Crab Panaeng with crispy basil leaves and Panaeng curry paste. I longed for some rice to sop up the fragrant curry that lingered on my tongue with a pleasant peanutty aftertaste, but the fried chunks of crab weren’t a bad way to transport the relatively thick curry to my mouth.
Prior to the evening, I had been slightly concerned that the kitchen would ramp up the spice for our supposedly “seasoned” palates that should be accustomed to heat from multiple visits to restaurants like Jitlada, and I (again, the relative “newcomer”) would be hugging the water glass all night. I was relieved that like with the various curries we enjoyed, the Crying Tiger and 911 Catfish dishes did not live up to their intimidating names. While I could spy the little flecks of red pepper in the Crying Tiger with flame-grilled marinated rib-eye steak and dried chili pepper sauce, and the 911 Catfish with deep-fried catfish, young peppercorn, Krachai roots, and red chili paste, the heat was restrained and did not over power the other components. As I told my new best friends (four hours is a long time to spend with five other people), “It was good spicy.”
Ironically, one of my least favorite dishes of the evening was the Seafood Pad Thai – the dish I was perhaps most familiar with prior to the dinner. I did enjoy the fresh mussels, shrimp, squid, and scallops that were judiciously spread over the top, but the noodles were a little dense and muddied by the sauce. I much preferred the Surf & Turf Fried Rice with grilled filet mignon, plump shrimp and ginger. Because carbs (along with my aforementioned fellow eaters) are my best friends, I couldn’t help but return for several spoonfuls of the decidedly unhumble version of what is normally a relatively simple side dish. I knew I would be cursing myself when I assumed the fetal position from extreme fullness later in the evening, but couldn’t help helping myself to more.
I similarly couldn’t help eating every single bite of my portion of the Mango & Sweet Sticky Rice, Thailand’s traditional summer dessert. I appreciated the ripeness of the slivers of mango and eagerly snacked on them like carrots while I took down the subtly sweetened rice. I could easily imagine eating something similar for breakfast in lieu of my fruity bowls of sticky oatmeal.
Or maybe just use it as an excuse to eat dessert for dinner.
After the final fork and final pair of sticky fingers (mine) had been laid to rest, we reluctantly vacated our seats so our attentive hosts could close up the restaurant. It had been a uniquely special evening – a night when all of us let down our guards and Internet handles to just enjoy a meal together without pretense. It was easy to do with Chef Sukcharoen’s accessible Thai-inspired dishes. The unpretentious plates show that he is not only cooking from his heart, but cooking to please his audience – to give them a “Big surprise!” with just how enjoyable it can be to go to that Thai place around the corner.
I hope the next time I make the trek one and half miles east, the staff will recognize me as the girl who is about to become a regular.
They better get used to seeing me in sweatpants.
Nakkara on Beverly
7669 Beverly Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90036