How To Decide Which Thai Boat Noodles Are Best For You
It’s official… my new favorite thing about Los Angeles (and more specifically L.A. over NYC) is Thai boat noodles. I can’t say for sure if there are or aren’t “boat noodles” in New York City (I’m guessing you can get them somewhere) but it isn’t like it is here. Here, boat noodles are a thing. And like most regional specialties in L.A. (be it Thai or whatever) there are quite a few restaurants that specialize in this one dish. For those of you who have never tried boat noodles (aka me, three weeks ago) it’s a beef noodle soup that got its name from being served off of boats in the rivers and canals of Thailand. It is traditionally made with bits of beef, liver, tripe, and whatever else is on hand… but for those of you who aren’t into the offal, most restaurants in L.A. have a version that’s just pieces of plain old beef. The one thing they can’t go easy on (or else it wouldn’t really be boat noodles) is…brace yourself… the blood. (Please don’t stop reading.)
That’s right. The not-so-secret ingredient in boat noodles is blood- but now that I’ve told you that, I want you to completely forget you ever knew it. Because if nobody told you about the blood, and pushed this sweet and sour, savory and spicy soup in front of you and told you to drink, you’d love it. And why should a little blood get in the way of you tasting one of the best foodstuffs ever. I guarantee you will love it. Well, maybe you wouldn’t love every version. But some boat noodles are… let’s say… easier than others. So the trick is to find the bowl that is right for you.
And if you thought department of health ratings or willingness to accept credit cards is a factor, it isn’t. They all get Bs and none of them take plastic.
I actually don’t mind blood… anymore. My conversion happened at Au Pied du Cochon in Montreal over a piece of blood sausage. It was dark and sweet and mineral-y, with that unmistakable taste of iron- and it gave me insight into why the Brits call it blood pudding. It seriously tasted like a delicious, and meaty chocolate (?) pudding. But I didn’t just jump into the blood sausage. It came to me after years of working my way through all the different livers (goose to duck to chicken to cow), and finally getting to a point where blood sausage just didn’t seem like that weird a flavor anymore. Boat noodles were not involved in my progression, but if I knew then what I know now, it would have been stop number one.
And stop number on the “stop number one” tour would be Thai Town. From boat noodle professional to boat noodle rookie, most people in L.A. tend to go to Hollywood when the craving hits. Back in February, The Guru called the boat noodles at Sapp Coffee Shop one of the 99 Things To Eat in L.A. Before You Die, but then wrote a pretty glowing review of the version at Pa Ord a few months later. At one time Ord might have been considered one of the best, as was Noodle Thaitown (both mentioned in the Pa Ord review), although their glory days seem to have coincided with the time that boat noodle specialist (and current Pa Ord owner) Lawan “Ord” Bhanduram was at the helm. (It sounds like she’s worked at every boat noodle place at one time or another!) And finally, it seems like you can’t mention noodles in Thai Town without mentioning Sanamluang, and they also do boat noodles. So with a list of five contenders, I set out to tackle Hollywood Boat Noodles 101.
I had heard that Sanamluang is known for their noodles (and being open late) and even though the General’s Noodle is what they are most known for (thanks to “The Guru”), they do make something called “Spicy Beef Noodle” (aka Boat Noodles). It’s got slices of beef, beef balls, tendon, liver, and tripe… and the overwhelming flavor of anise. This version is recommended for those who like flat noodles, and can’t get enough anise. But the real reason to go to this spot is that they’re open until 4am. (The other places are all closed by 9pm.) 5170 Hollywood Blvd, 323-660-8006
Just a block up the street is Noodle Thaitown, the smallest of the 5 spots. Their version also came with sliced beef, liver, a giant beef ball, been sprouts and some veggies. Its distinguishing factor was a large scoop of what appeared to be green salsa in the middle of the bowl (some Thai restaurants will have a similar condiment in small bowls on the table.) So if you like that green stuff, this might be the bowl of soup for you? 5136 Hollywood Blvd, 323-667-0934
Ord, which is now calling itself Hoy Ka, is a better bowl of boat noodles than most, but we couldn’t help but feel like we were eating a second rate version of Pa Ord. It had the same sweet and sour balance, but the broth isn’t as a complex and there’s no cracklins! You might as well just go to Pa Ord… unless of course, your coworkers don’t want boat noodles and nobody wants to wait for a table. Ord can be less crowded, and their crispy pork is deeeelicious. (Although it’s hard to make a bad version of that dish, IMO.) 5401 Hollywood Blvd, 323-468-9302
Pa Ord is probably the best introductory version of boat noodles there is. The noodles are good, the broth is equal parts sweet and tart, and they have a small bowl of soup for $3.50. So you don’t have to commit to spending $5.50on a giant bowl. They also have what appears to be real cracklins on top (as opposed to the pork rinds you get at Sapp) and some veggies, which was nice. You get liver and tripe in addition to two different cuts of beef, and beef balls. And if you say you want it Thai spicy, they do not hold back. They ask you if you’re sure, but once you say yes again- it’s on. This version is recommended for beginners who don’t mind offal, and like their boat noodles to be a bit on the sweeter side. Also, highly recommended for heat junkies (their chili mixture has a great building heat) and for those who want an option that’s under $4. 5301 Sunset Blvd, 323-461-3945
Consensus among many these days seems to be that Sapp Coffee Shop is the best bowl of boat noodles in L.A. and it’s hard to disagree- although be forewarned, it is much funkier and less sweet than the version at Pa Ord (which means it’s also more tart.) The bowl is on the small side compared to the $5.50 bowl at Pa Ord, but when it comes to depth of flavor (read: blood) I think Sapp takes the crown. The buried treasures hidden in this version of boat noodles seem endless, whether it’s slices of super tender beef (brisket, maybe?), liver, tripe, tendon, or beef balls that don’t look like they were made by a machine. Ready to dive first into boat noodles 101? This is the bowl of soup for you. Still a little nervous? Or like your soup a bit sweeter and less sour? Pa Ord might be the safer bet… although Sapp has a version of the boat noodles with just beef. Oh, and they have jade noodles? I will definitely be back for those. 5183 Hollywood Blvd, 323-665-1035