When Luv2eat Thai Bistro opened in a Hollywood strip mall back in September 2014, the tiny restaurant was packed. It didn’t matter that the mismatched tables and chairs were $5 finds from a second hand store or that service was slow. Diners watched as the two faces on the vinyl banner outside took all the orders, cooked, served, and even washed dishes.
It didn’t matter because those two were Noree Pla and Fern Kaewtathip, who very well may be the most lovable chefs in all of Los Angeles. And now they’ve brought their cooking skills to the heart of Hollywood’s nightlife district deep inside Black Rabbit Rose, Jonnie and Mark Houston’s magic-themed lounge.
Pla and Fern developed a shared love of deftly spiced, regional cuisine as childhood friends in Phuket. While Fern moved to Bangkok to work at a petroleum company, Pla found herself helping out at her mom’s tiny restaurant in touristy Patong Beach before starting her own event and catering business, cooking for local celebrities and corporations.
Fern was first to move to America, working as a line cook at The Beverly Hills Hotel’s Polo Lounge. A few months later, Pla immigrated and found herself employed at the now defunct Aey Bakery in Thai Town. The duo came together as two of the partners at Hoy-Ka before they split to open their own restaurant.
It was the former Hoy-Ka patrons that followed the chefs over to their new Sunset Boulevard eatery, and it’s not hard to understand why. Together, Pla and Fern are cooking up some of the most compelling Thai cuisine in a city rife Southeast Asian eateries.
But beyond outstanding plates of fiery curries and crowd-pleasing noodles, it’s the chefs’ effortless knack for hospitality that keeps customers returning. The effervescent Pla typically holds down the front of house, while the more reserved Fern helms the kitchen. A feature on both chefs, however, is a smile that radiates from a genuine place of warmth, and a sense of humility that isn’t typical for this part of Hollywood.
It’s no surprise that only a few short years after making waves in the blogosphere, the half-Thai nightlife impresarios known as the Houston brothers started frequenting the restaurant to get their fix. One Thai takeout window and a buzzy bar opening later, Crying Tiger, the duo’s second eatery opened in partnership with Mark and Jonnie Houston, sprung to life in Black Rabbit Rose.
Here are the restaurant’s five best dishes to order on your visit.
Phuket-Style Squid Ink Stir-Fried Squid
If there’s one dish every diner must order at Luv2eat, it’s the Phuket-style crab curry. The ferociously spicy archetype of masochism made waves across the blogosphere, with many a food writer, including this one, falling prey to its interplay of pleasure and pain.
Chef Pla wanted to assure that every restaurant the duo opens (spoiler alert, there are plans for more outlets in the future) features a signature dish, and at Crying Tiger, it’s the stir-fried squid. The dish actually begins at the flagship restaurant, where Pla and Fern collect the ink from the large squid they barbecue at Luv2eat. The ink is transported to Crying Tiger, where Pla stir-fries fresh chili, lemongrass, and kaffir lime leaves before adding whole baby squid, the reserved squid ink, chicken stock, palm sugar, and fish sauce.
While the dish may not have as popular of an appeal as the radioactive yellow crab curry, the squid, sinister in its black coloring, reflects the qualities that characterize the chefs’ cooking: adrenaline-inducing spice, undercurrents of sweetness, and the punch of seafood funk.
A staple at Pla’s mother’s bar was the beef jerky. Using the sun and the cover of a mosquito net, her mother would dry slabs of beef on the rooftop of their Phuket home. Unfortunately, Pla explained, replicating this technique would not fly with LA’s health department. Instead the chefs marinate the beef overnight then dry it in the oven with low heat. The meat strips are then fried to order and served with a northeastern Thai dipping sauce known as jaew, a blend of grilled jalapeños, garlic, onions, and Thai chili. The hearty snack is an umami bomb that one imagines would have been an especially tasty treat with a frosty Singha under the Phuket sun. Thankfully, a Black Rabbit Rose cocktail does just fine.
When developing the menu for Crying Tiger, it was important to chefs Pla and Fern to serve only food authentic to their home country. That was fine with the Houston brothers, who only asked that they searched through their repertoire to find dishes that were approachable for the patrons of the bar. Hence the shumai, a dish that highlights Chinese influences on Thai cooking. The chicken dumplings aren’t quite as savory as their Chinese counterparts, with the sweetness that partly characterizes Thai cuisine coming through in the soy dipping sauce and chicken filling.
Crying Tiger’s tamarind chicken is another example of a Black Rabbit Rose-friendly staple. The orange chicken-reminiscent dish coats fried bits of chicken in tamarind, palm sugar, and salt. A notable omission from the sweet glaze is fish sauce, which the chefs omit to cater to vegetarian clients who can substitute tofu for chicken.
When the chefs waited for Black Rabbit Rose to open, they kept their new staff busy by opening a takeout window out of the Crying Tiger kitchen. Located right above other Houston Brother nightlife concept Dirty Laundry and around the corner from No Vacancy, it’s no surprise that the window is busiest in late night post-drinking hours. And while pad Thai and the aptly named drunken noodles are the most popular orders at this time, tamarind chicken also sits near the top of the list as a popular pick to soak up a night of excess.
A personal favorite of chefs Pla and Fern are jade noodles, the colorful staple popularized by the legendary Sapp Coffee shop in Thai Town. The bright green spinach noodles are accompanied by roasted duck and Chinese broccoli. And while Luv2eat offers the noodles in the more traditional way, with containers of Thai chilies and other accoutrements on every table, Crying Tiger’s tables are left empty, meaning you’d be wise to ask for a side of the spicy powder if you like an extra kick.
The Luv2eat chefs’ move from a humble strip mall restaurant to a partnership with one of the year’s splashiest new lounges hasn’t been without growing pains. Most Black Rabbit Rose patrons don’t even know that they have some of LA’s most talented Thai chefs quite literally standing right behind a velvet curtain.
Pull that curtain back, and the magic-themed bar unveils its very best trick yet.