The big idiosyncrasy at the heart of Song Fung Khong (or Kim Thai Food, as it’s also known) is its location: a crowded, compact stall inside the dinky food court of North Hollywood’s La Fiesta Swap Meet, a sleepy discount warehouse that caters mostly to working class Latinos.
Once you’ve navigated past the bootleg Barcelona jerseys and booty jeans, the eyebrow threading station, and the guy inexplicably selling miniature medieval swords, you arrive at the Comida Internaccional section, and there, sandwiched between a Persian kebab stand and a Jerez-style burrito joint is Song Fung Khong, one of the most renown and decorated Isaan Thai vendors in Los Angeles, a city which may as well be Thailand’s unofficial westernmost province.
Although the restaurant boasts around 100 dishes on its menu, Song Fung Khong is pretty much known for one thing: som tum, that iconic mortar-pounded salad made from shredded green papaya. The basic version, som tum thai, is captivatingly pleasant here, its sharp spike of chile heat mellowed by a handful of roasted peanuts, dried shrimp and palm sugar.
But pretty much everyone in line is ordering the distinctly different som tum lao, a style beloved in Isaan, the rural, swampy, sunbaked region of northeastern Thailand (crib notes for Isaan cooking, more or less, involve WMD-levels of fermented things, chile, garlic and lime; this is not food for the faint of heart, or those who want to be kissed).
To prepare som tum lao, you mash in gooey, half-brined rice paddy crabs, which stain the papaya an ominous black color, a heaping ladle of pla raa, a chunky extra-stank condiment made from fermented river fish, and as much dried and raw chiles as you can physically tolerate. The combined effect is uncut, mind-altering raunch. No sooner has the delirious capsaicin high subsided than you find yourself dipping another pinch of sticky rice into the salad’s inky juices, sweating and fidgeting and panting all over again. This is the som tum lao experience in a nutshell.
The women pounding the papaya salad are Khanhthong “Kim” Siharath and her daughter, Nancy. You’ll recognize Kim because her photos are plastered all over, including a tall poster of her in full beauty queen attire, tiara and sash and all. Along the crowded counter space, tucked behind plastic containers of nam prik hed (mushroom chile dip), pickled mustard greens and puffy oversized pork rinds, you’ll find a row of trophies awarded to Kim over the years by local Thai booster clubs (“Best Spicy Papaya Salad 2013,” reads one).
For years Kim was a revered papaya salad vendor at Wat Thai, the sprawling Buddhist temple in North Hollywood, which often hosts popular food festivals on weekends. About eight years ago, the market was temporarily shut down due to permitting issues and a handful of vendors, including Kim, scattered to supermarket and shopping malls across the Valley to launch their own operations. Kim has remained Wat Thai’s most successful defector over the years, regularly holding court at her restaurant like a local celebrity and occasionally pausing for photo-ops while pounding salad in heels and a miniskirt (get it girl).
Kim hails from Nong Khai, a border town on the Thailand side of the Mekhong River, the squiggly wet demarcation line dividing Isaan from Laos. Though they’re technically citizens of separate countries, those who live in Isaan-Lao generally see themselves as the same people (the name Song Fung Khong means roughly “two banks of the Mekhong River”) similar in the way Tijuana and San Diego can at times resemble a single culture split by an imaginary border.
This is to say the Isaan-Lao specialties at Song Fung Khong are prepared with a seriousness of intent which can only be found in the most wistfully homesick of cooks, and Kim’s repertoire in particular stretches as wide as the river itself: garlicky sour sausages; fermented bamboo salad; charred pork slices with chile-garlic dip; tangy tom saap soup with offal; curried catfish wrapped in banana leaves. There is a spectacular take on yum moo yang, a sweet-spicy pork salad the menu calls “Yum #1,” and an unrefined, backcountry version of the crispy rice salad nam khao tod, overloaded with fatty nubs of sour pork.
But the most exciting dish is probably the Isaan-style duck laap, a salad of vigorously chopped meat showered with raw herbs, fermented fish sauce, and roasted rice powder. In this case the meat is a mélange of duck parts — leg, liver, gizzard, other stuff — hacked to bits and sautéed in rendered duck fat along with lemongrass and shallots, the whole thing melting into a fragrant heap. Kim garnishes her laap with dried red chiles grown in her backyard, a handful of crispy duck skin cracklings, and a few slices of cucumber.
If it wasn’t for the brutal levels of heat packed into each bite, you might describe this dish as elegant — a short poem on spicy duckness. Fortunately, there are styrofoam plates loaded with sticky rice ready to quell the flames, or Big Gulp-sized cups of Thai tea if something more soothing is necessary.
If you’re wondering, like I was, how Song Fung Khong has managed to remain a relative secret amongst L.A.’s Thai community over the past eight years, there are good reasons, the most significant being that the greater San Fernando Valley has long been overlooked as a hotbed of Thai cooking.
Thai Town might serve as the throbbing nerve center for Thai culture, but up in the suburbs is where the heart lies. Most older Thai-Americans and their families reside there, having moved out of crowded East Hollywood apartments decades earlier, now growing prik kaeng and Makrut limes in their bucolic backyards. At Song Fung Khong, it’s not uncommon to see waitresses from local Thai restaurants like Hoy Ka and Night + Market stop by for a quick snack before a shift, or pick up cartons of som tum on the way to visit relatives. The fact that you can get your car windows tinted while you wait is a mere bonus of swap meet-adjacency.
In the years since Kim opened her eponymous restaurant — its full title being Khanhthong (her Thai name) Song Fung Khong — the markets at Wat Thai have reopened, and once again vendors pop-up on weekends selling wok-fried noodles, meat skewers, and decidedly less aggressive versions of papaya salad. On my last visit I asked Kim if she ever envisions returning to the market, perhaps in a bid to defend her prized som tum title. She laughed at the question, flashed a trademark smile, and told me it’s much better when the customer comes to you, instead of the other way around.
Khanhthong Song Fung Khong (Kim Thai Food), 12727 Sherman Way, Ste. B-07, North Hollywood, (818) 765-5584