Every weekend, plumes of smoke rise from the parking lot of Wat Thai in Sun Valley. The aromas of meat grilled over an open flame, banana fritters fried in vats of boiling oil, and tangy lemongrass and fish sauce drift along the block, far beyond the perimeter of the temple. 50-year-old sparkling Thai Buddhist, the oldest in the country. .
This is where about 17 vendors gather every weekend to sell papaya salad prepared in large stone mortars, slices of ripe mango with sticky rice, grilled skewers of marinated pork, curls of skins of fried chicken, Styrofoam boxes overflowing with crab fried rice, pork sausages with strips of raw garlic and rice flour pizzelles full of “Thai gelato”. There are even the obligatory farmer’s market bags of hot corn.
Visitors roam the outdoor food court with swivel heads, holding clear bags filled with orange and purple plastic tokens. You trade money for the $1 and $2 tokens and then present them to vendors like Monopoly money.
On average, the market sees around 1,500 to 2,000 visitors per weekend. And on a busy Sunday, this small parking lot can feel like the hub of LA’s Thai community.
“It’s exactly the same as the markets you can find all over Thailand,” said Tor Saralamba, Thailand’s consul general in Los Angeles and a frequent visitor to the food court. “Food is culture; it represents who we are, and the market is like an orientation towards our food.
It started in the 1980s with one or two families selling food to feed parents and grandparents of children who attended temple classes, according to Ton Pattana, who took over food court operations in 2021. It was originally located under the building, where classes were held, but soon outgrew the space and moved.
After a two-year hiatus during the pandemic, the weekend food court returned in November with a new lineup of rotating vendors. But not everyone can be a seller. First, you need to earn a good old-fashioned meal.
“I want it to be fair, so we have a competition,” Pattana said, “With COVID, we had to reduce the number of vendors from over 25 to 17.”
Pattana hosts a contest in which potential vendors present food to five anonymous judges who own Thai restaurants in Los Angeles. The aim is to have a wide representation of market dishes. If you want to fry bananas, you’ll have to compete against another vendor to earn a spot.
Heng Vongasavarit and his mother, Suchada, have been selling bowls of noodle soup at the temple since 2003. They proudly display their award-winning vendor banner beneath their illustrated menu of duck noodle soup, boat noodles and pho.
The duck noodle soup is a favorite, with a dense, meaty, muddy broth and a mess of tangled rice noodles. It is topped with tender slices of duck, crispy pieces of skin and lots of cilantro.
The Vongasavarits used to run restaurants in Thailand but said they would not be leaving the temple food court any time soon.
“Owning restaurants is a headache,” Heng said. “Here, the initial investment is not large, the overhead is affordable and it’s not as expensive as having a brick and mortar.”
The temple takes 20% of every dollar traded for tokens at the market. This money is used for temple expenses as well as renewing the food court permit every three months and providing vendors with tents, tables and chairs.
“In the past two months, we have spent $120,000 on repainting and nearly $80,000 on a new carpet for the temple,” Pattana said. “We spent $100,000 to reshape the market and get it working again.”
Art Sungkamee runs the Pad Thai Boran stand a few tents north of Heng Heng 88. The illustrated menu on the front features enlarged photos of crab fried rice, crab rubbed with green curry paste, and the specialty of Sungkamee, the pad thai.
On a recent Sunday, in the makeshift kitchen behind his tent, Sungkamee deftly manipulated a wok engulfed in flames, tossing thin, flat rice noodles into a sweet tamarind sauce until the noodles were smooth and shiny. An egg that scrambled in seconds was tossed with bean sprouts and lots of green onion. If you want an exemplary version of pad thai, this is the place to find it.
There are plenty of options for dessert, with crispy fried bananas and sweet potato dumplings that look like perfectly round donut holes but taste like mochi, as well as platters of khanom khrok with stuffed pancakes and crunchy that look like tiny cigars. But for “Thai gelato,” visit software engineer Darwin Wai at the purple and yellow Moom Maam tent near the northwest corner of the food court.
“There aren’t a ton of Thai specialties and I wanted to create something new that isn’t really here in the States,” Wai said.
In May 2021, between engineering jobs, he ordered a $30 ice cream maker from Amazon and started making ice cream. Its staple flavors include Thai tea, espresso, vegan fior di cocco (a game of fior di latte), rice berry horchata, and mango. Moom Maam is one of the few temple vendors you will soon be able to find outside of the market. Wai recently started selling her desserts from a food truck that you can follow via Instagram.
Wherever you find Wai, you can order his version of a sundae, simply called “the special.” Wai starts by making a fresh waffle using a gluten-free batter he developed when he started selling fried bananas at the market in November. (He actually won the fried banana contest, then gradually started selling gelato.)
After the waffle is baked, he neatly folds the edges over, creating a wavy bowl. He adds coconut sticky rice, then two scoops of gelato. The special is finished with a sprinkle of toasted grated coconut and caramelized palm sugar. For a semi-frozen version of mango sticky rice, order your special with fior di cocco and mango. The flavors are instantly recognizable, only semi-frozen. It’s the best way to soothe your tongue after the welcome onslaught of chili peppers and garlic.