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Boat noodle soup served in a pink bowl at Mae Malai on Hollywood Boulevard.
Beef boat noodle soup.

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Get a Taste of the Stunning Thai Noodle Soups Taking Hollywood Boulevard By Storm

Head to Mae Malai Noodles in Thai Town after dark for boat noodles, tom yum noodles, coconut pandan custard, and more

On hot summer days in LA, spicy noodle soup is rarely the first food that comes to mind when stewing over what to eat. But despite it being over 90 degrees in East Hollywood, a small crowd has already formed in front of Mae Malai Noodles — a weekends-only pop-up specializing in Thai boat noodles — half an hour before its opening. Conversational Thai and mor lam music spill out from the stand while owner Malai Data, with her signature black cap and two long braids, hustles beneath the canopy, ensuring her bubbling stocks and assortment of toppings are ready for dinner service.

Data started her streetside noodle business 10 months ago, joining the popular wok-fired noodle operation Rad Nah Silom by invitation on Hollywood Boulevard in Thai Town. The shared space includes unfussy plastic stools and tables blanketed in red-and-white checkered vinyl covers. “We both want the Thai community and others who are interested in Thai food to have the opportunity to eat original Thai food,” Data says. “If you want it spicy, you have to come here.”

Just as she finishes her sentence, a cloud of fried chiles and garlic from Rad Nah’s hardworking woks rolls through, sending Data into a coughing fit. “It’s just like Thailand,” she says, gesturing to the low-set tables, wobbly stools, and fragrant fumes. “All you need now are tons of motorcycles.”

A group portrait of the staff and owner of Mae Malai on Hollywood Boulevard.
Malai Data (second from left) and her team.
Streetside diners at Mae Malai on Hollywood Boulevard.
Streetside diners at Mae Malai on Hollywood Boulevard.
Streetside diners at Mae Malai on Hollywood Boulevard.

Data hails from Uttaradit, a province that straddles central and northern Thailand. Although the area isn’t known for its noodle soups, Data learned how to prepare boat noodles and tom yum noodles from her former mother-in-law, who has been selling both dishes in Bangkok for more than 60 years. “His grandmother taught me,” Data says, gesturing to her son Mick Sanguansai, who spends every weekend helping at the stand by jotting down orders and running trays of food to customers. “It’s been 17 years since I learned how to prepare these noodles and she was the one who encouraged me to bring her recipe to the States,” she says.

Noodles arrive in a pink plastic bowl that Data orders from Thailand. Portions are on the smaller side, a size also standard in Thailand, so that customers can eat more than one serving. The $8 price tag belies the immense labor and hard-to-find ingredients that go into each serving. Data isn’t shy about sharing the work required to execute her recipes. The soulful boat noodle stocks, one made of beef and the other with pork, are simmered with a blend of Chinese and Thai spices for a minimum of three hours. The addition of beef blood and coconut milk in the boat noodle broths makes for an unctuous brew, while the tom yum broth is lighter and zippier from fresh limes. Data insists on preparing both kinds of noodle soups to give her customers options. The trio of broths continues to develop flavor throughout dinner service, so late-night diners are treated to extra-concentrated servings.

To pair with the broths are a variety of noodles. For those wanting rice noodles, Data offers flat ones like the kind found in pad see ew and thin strands of vermicelli. Curly Chinese egg noodles and mung bean-based glass noodles are also available. The noodles are quickly blanched and then submerged in one’s broth of choice.

The owner of Mae Malai on Hollywood Boulevard ladling soup from a metal pot.
Malai Data.
Tamarind-glazed pork and beef meatballs at Mae Malai on Hollywood Boulevard.
Tamarind-glazed pork and beef meatballs.
Boat noodle soup at Mae Malai on Hollywood Boulevard.
Boat noodle soup.
Tom yum noodle soup at Mae Malai on Hollywood Boulevard.
Tom yum noodle soup.

A plethora of toppings provide each bowl with textural and flavor contrasts. Boat noodles are crowned with crispy and fatty bits of fried pork, green onions, bean sprouts, meatballs, and a choice of pork or beef, which are marinated for hours and stewed until tender. Data recommends ordering the boat noodle soup with pork and small rice noodles — extra spicy, of course. The tom yum noodle soup arrives with a lime wedge, bow-shaped fried wonton skins, ground peanuts, and the same option of pork or beef, alongside bouncy meatballs.

Noodles can also be ordered without broth (“hang” in Thai). This preparation includes a dark soy sauce that stains the noodles an alluring shade of umber. Each serving boasts a tangier and sweeter flavor profile compared to its soupy counterparts. Data prefers vermicelli noodles in this preparation.

To further enhance each bowl of noodles, $2 bags of pork rinds are strung up under the canopy. They work well crumbled over the noodles or dipped into leftover broth. Fried wonton skins and pork or beef meatballs glazed with a sweet-tart chile-flecked tamarind sauce are available as side dishes; the latter is served with raw cabbage as a palate cleanser.

Coconut and panda dessert at Mae Malai on Hollywood Boulevard.
Kanom tuay.

Among the aromas of tangy tamarind and bubbling beef stock, the sweeter and subtler scent of pandan and coconut occasionally filters its way through, hinting at an end-of-meal sweet that should not be overlooked. The kanom tuay (“bowl dessert”) is the only dessert option at Mae Malai, consisting of half a dozen steamed pandan custards topped with salty coconut cream. “We use fresh pandan leaves and no artificial color so it’s very fragrant,” Data says. Her version is served in small ceramic bowls and tastes silky and floral without being cloying; the coconut cream is savory enough to offset the custard’s sweetness.

“I’ve always loved cooking, eating, and feeding others,” Data says. While she’s dreamed of owning a food business her entire life, Data worked as a massage therapist for most of her career; the job provided the income necessary to send her children to school even though it wasn’t a personal passion. But now that both Mick and his older brother Mack have graduated from college, she is finally prioritizing her long-dormant ambitions.

Though Data wants to expand the menu to include Isaan and Northern-style sausages and add an extra day to her current Friday through Sunday schedule, she recognizes the limitations of running a one-woman business. Even with four days off between services, Data is rarely able to rest and is usually busy gathering ingredients and preparing the two stocks.

But Data is exhilarated by the crowd, which includes a mix of regulars and newcomers, Thai diners looking for a slice of home, and Angelenos craving a taste of Bangkok. Some of her customers have even crossed state lines. “I want to make the best noodles and really showcase what Thai food is about,” she says, before waving to a returning customer joining the throngs. A line is quickly forming down Hollywood Boulevard, and Data must get back to her noodles.

Update: September 12, 2023, 1:45 p.m.: Mae Malai has ceased operations at 5321 Hollywood Boulevard to comply with local regulations and is currently looking for a permanent location.

Mae Malai

5321 Hollywood Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90027 Visit Website
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