One good test of a city’s culinary scene is whether cuisines are still concentrated in distinct pockets, or whether appreciation for these cultural traditions has increased to the point that they can flourish in outlying neighborhoods. Los Angeles has now entered a phase where food lovers no longer need to drive to the San Gabriel Valley for flavorful Chinese food, for example. People can now find respectable options on the Westside or in the South Bay.
The same can certainly be said for Thai food, which long ago made the leap from Thai Town to North Hollywood. Now reliable, and sometimes even stellar Thai restaurants are thriving on the Sunset Strip, in Silver Lake, and Venice (Night + Market), in Westchester (Ayara) and Mid-City (Noree Thai). The South Bay has been a bit slower to support a true Thai restaurant destination, but that changed in January with Thai Hub Street Food Dessert Cafe’s arrival in south Torrance.
Thai Hub Street Food Dessert Cafe has a name that reads like a series of SEO-friendly keywords, but the fast casual operation is warm and welcoming, specializing in hearty Thai comfort food. The sister restaurant to nearby Ubon Thai Kitchen, this sleek eatery has a menu with some overlap. But what helps Thai Hub stand out is its increased focus on Northern Thailand at their airy strip mall dining room.
Nam khao tod salad ($10.50) is one of the restaurant’s top dishes, a northern Thai crispy rice salad that eats more like salad than a rice plate. Crispy rice beads join sour fermented pork chunks, toasted peanuts, shaved red onions, ginger, cilantro, Makrut lime leaves, and mint in a piquant lime dressing.
Boat noodle soup is a Bangkok classic popularized by having people call boat-bound vendors to the banks of the Chao Phraya River to sell bowls of spicy beef noodle soup. Thai Hub’s version ($6 mini, $12 regular) features a rich, slightly sweet broth stained red with blood and chiles. Rice vermicelli, sliced beef, firm beef balls, morning glory stems and bean sprouts contribute heft and crunch. The best move is to devour the crispy, topside chicharrones before they get soggy, and then slurp until the bowl’s empty. This soup’s hard to stop eating.
Tom zap sounds like something Adam West might have eaten between groovy battles with the Joker in the ‘60s. Instead, this herbaceous, tomato-tinged lemongrass soup ($12.50) comes loaded with tender, bone-in “baby” pork ribs, firm king oyster mushrooms, tomato, and a blizzard of scallions. This soup’s flavor profile is similar to tom yum, with pronounced zing.
Larb is the potent ground meat preparation popular in Laos and northern Thailand. Restaurants occasionally form the well-spiced meat (typically pork) into fried patties. Thai Hub’s fried larb salad ($10.25) showcases soft ground pork mixed with onions, Makrut lime leaves, cilantro, and gritty rice powder. The results tout soft centers and crispy coats. Thai Hub serves patties alongside cucumber sticks on a raft of romaine lettuce, which apparently makes this salad. These patties are flavorful, but fairly one-note. Hit the condiment bar next to the soda dispenser to punch up the rich dish with tangy garlic sauce or murky green Thai “salsa.”
Thai Hub serves three different salads starring crunchy green papaya. Lao papaya salad and vermicelli ($12) is a noodle-y nod to Thailand’s neighboring country, which is where papaya salad likely originated. In this case, papaya shavings arrive tossed with fermented fish sauce, tomatoes, crunchy long beans, rice vermicelli, and soft slabs of mortadella-like Vietnamese sausage. Unfortunately, Thai Hub’s version doesn’t pack enough funk, pop, or spice. Diners might be better off with a more basic version with crumbled, dried shrimp.
Those craving simpler comfort can opt for a “rice dish” with steamed white rice, a fluffy Thai-style fried egg, and a choice of protein. Shrimp with nira flower ($13) features sweet shelled shrimp and crunchy nira flower (garlic chive) stems stir-fried with an umami-rich pairing of shrimp paste oil and oyster sauce. Stems abound, so be prepared for a jaw workout, but this dish is worth the effort.
Morning glory with crispy pork ($12) is a more familiar combo that Thai Hub handles with aplomb, stir-frying crunchy, hollow morning glory stems and meaty pork belly chunks with glorious likker, oyster sauce, and chiles. They plate before frying the pork belly into oblivion, which is a frequent pitfall at many Thai restaurants.
Lunch sets are great for variety’s sake, but they don’t tap into the restaurant’s street food repertoire. Still, it’s hard to argue with $9.95 for three dishes. Lunch Set #2 is a solid choice, teaming smoky, well-seared pad see ew with egg, wonton soup co-starring serviceable BBQ pork, and chicken wings coated in thick, overly puffy batter.
At the conclusion of each order, the counterperson will inevitably ask, “How spicy?” “Medium spicy” barely registered any burn, so consider “spicy” to get more adrenaline pumping. Thai Hub also serves “Thai spicy” food, for customers who feel up to the challenge, though it’s not like they’re ever going to reach Jitlada spice levels.
Considering Thai Hub touts itself as a dessert café, it was a bit surprising they offer only six options. Of course classic mango sticky rice makes the cut. So does toast dressed with condensed milk and Milo, a chocolate malt powder from Nestlé that’s popular in Thailand. Thai tea snowflakes with grass jelly ($7) is their most unique option, starring shaved snow with distinctive Thai tea flavor and the texture of Cadbury Flake candy bar. They bury a central cache of bouncy black grass jelly inside, topping it with whipped cream and shaved almonds. The colorful dessert makes for a refreshing finish.
It would be easy to fall into the trap of how Thai Hub compares to favorite Thai Town haunts, but that’s really beside the point. South Bay denizens are fortunate to now have access to Thai food this good in the area. If Thai Hub succeeds, maybe other restaurateurs will step up to open other interesting international restaurants that continue to shift the paradigm for LA food culture. Angelenos are constantly proving that they’re ready for more.
Thai Hub Street Food Dessert Cafe, 3720 Pacific Coast Hwy, Torrance, 424.350.7289